When a 32-year veteran of the IT industry says that the biggest transformation they have seen is happening right now, it's time to sit up and take notice. In this case, the executive is Ton Steenman, vice president of Intel's Internet of Things (IoT) Solutions Group, and naturally enough he is referring to IoT itself.
"This is probably the biggest transformation I have seen in the industry over my whole career at Intel," Steenman said in an interview with V3.
"People call it the Internet Of Things, but by and large, it is really the transformation of what historically we called the embedded market, by making things connected and unleashing the power of data, and ultimately, the goal of the Internet of Things is to deliver business transformation," he said.
As an example, Steenman said that some Intel customers in the manufacturing industry have already been able to move from scheduled maintenance to a predictive maintenance model, using data gathered from their machines to tell whether a fault may be developing. This not only saves money, but also cuts unplanned downtime, he claimed.
Intel sees the growing interest around the Internet of Things as symptomatic of the fact that several key technologies needed to make it a reality have now reached critical mass, including pervasive connectivity, the low cost of storage for holding all the collected information, and the analytics tools required to make sense of the data.
Pervasive connectivity is being delivered via the mobile networks and the increasing coverage offered by high-speed wired networks, while storage costs have been driven down not just by the increasing capacity of storage, but the availability of cloud storage services such as Amazon S3.
Meanwhile, analytics has advanced, partly thanks to the efforts of social networks to mine valuable insights from the masses of information that users are constantly uploading.
"In our view there are three pieces of the Internet of Things," Steenman said. "There is the device itself, which could be anything from a connected sensor to an MRI scanner in a hospital; then there is the plumbing to reach, manage and secure the device to make the data flow; and finally there is cloud-based services and analytics. But you need all three pieces to make it real - it's about the end-to-end solutions that are being created," he explained.
Naturally, Intel is looking to address all three pieces, according to Steenman, and has made a number of strategic acquisitions over the past few years in order to make this possible, including Wind River and McAfee, but also online service firms such as Aepona and Mashery that offer hosted application programming interfaces (APIs) that expose data to other applications and services.
Intel also has a big stake in the hardware side of things with its Quark processor at one end of the scale, and its extensive data centre portfolio at the other end, including the Xeon server chips widely used in the servers and other equipment that power cloud services.
The firm also invested a great deal of money into Hadoop specialist Cloudera earlier this year, a move that saw it gain access to Cloudera's big data tools for analysing large volumes of data.
"These are all pieces that fit into making the Internet of Things work, because there is the embedded software you need at the device and gateway level, the security you need end to end, the APIs you need in the cloud to get data off the devices, these are all building blocks that are necessary," he said.
Intel also announced the formation in March of the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), a group of firms comprising AT&T, Cisco, General Electric and IBM, to drive standards and better horizontal integration within services intended for the Internet of Things.
"Today, most of the solutions that are built are highly vertically integrated and very siloed. Everyone is building the solution from the device to the cloud from the ground up, with very little re-use, and that isn't sustainable in the industry because it doesn't scale," Steenman explained.
While some proponents of the Internet of Things have espoused grandiose notions of liberally distributing millions of tiny sensors around "like dust" in order to collect data on the environment, Intel's vision of how it will work is rather more prosaic.
"Some of the analysts have concluded that 85 percent of the devices that could benefit from the Internet of Things sit in existing infrastructure out there but are unconnected, so it is a big opportunity for industry to connect all those up," Steenman said.
The way that Intel proposes to wire up all these existing devices is through the use of gateway devices, which not only provide the connection to the internet for one or more devices, but may also provide some measure of local intelligence.
"It is necessary in industrial applications to have what we call intelligence at the edge, because you cannot always rely on the network connection being there, so you need a certain amount of intelligence to guarantee behaviour, particularly for mission-critical applications like smart grid or water supply management, or transportation solutions where you need a real time response," Steenman explained.
Under this vision, the endpoint devices could connect into a gateway device using the most appropriate communications technology, whether this is Bluetooth, Ethernet, or something such as the controller area network (CAN) bus.
The gateway will store any collected data before forwarding to a central cloud service for analysis, as well as providing the local point of control.
"Connecting every sensor directly to the cloud is probably not going to work," Steenman said. "And the reality is that the real world is not just about sensors, it is an implementation of control systems, and there are sensors and actuators and all kind of things out there. It's not just about a unidirectional path, collecting information from out there, it's about controlling things as well, which means that you need to respond to sensor input," he added.
"These systems have existed for a very long time, but they have traditionally been isolated islands of control systems, they have never been connected together and we have never gotten all the data off of them.
"Most of the data used in control systems to run the control algorithm was just thrown away; it was never stored because there was no concept of big data and it would have cost too much to store it, but the world has really changed from that perspective" Steenman said.
The comments come as interest in the Internet of Things grows all the time. Last week UK communications firms Arqiva announced it was building a network across 10 UK cities to prepare for the growth of IoT sensors in use.
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