The Internet of Things and Open Source

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Inevitable.  Inextricable.  Imminent.

Greeting Netizens.  Since you are reading this blog, you obviously belong to the “Internet of Persons,” a growing global population of 2.5 billion of your fellow human beings.   But as sentient surfers, you are not alone.  Joining you on the internet is a far more vast and increasingly ubiquitous army of connected objects, of variously autonomous devices, in a word, of “Things.”  Billions and billions of them, forming the Internet of Things (IoT).

Look around your office, your home or your school.  The most obvious networked Things are your phone, tablet and computer.  Next you will encounter computer peripherals, home entertainment devices and increasingly, your car.  But don’t stop there.  Investments in smart energy bring your thermostat, HVAC, pool and spa heaters, electrical plugs and light switches, even individual light bulbs and sockets onto the IoT.  At clinics and hospitals and in homes, connected Things encompass diagnostic equipment, patient monitors, surgical and pharmacy robots, drip machines and other apparatuses of modern medicine.  The same goes for manufacturing, food production and processing, arts and entertainment, sports (think NASCAR cams and smart hockey pucks).  Ditto for practically every aspect of human endeavor.

But don’t stop with “smart” devices.  There is an even larger fleet of passive devices that participates in the IoT.  About a decade ago, manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers began embedding RFID chips into and attaching smart labels on to goods to track production, distribution, sales and leakage (theft).  These tiny “slugs” and ordinary-looking labels contain unique identifiers and modest amount of memory, accessed by stimulating them with pulses of radio energy.  By placing RFID portals at entrances and exits of stores, libraries and warehouses, and at key points on production lines, organizations can closely track location, production and consumption of tagged items – electronics, pharmaceuticals, books, supplies, clothing, shoes, the food in your fridge, of any Thing you can imagine.

Omnipresent and pervasive, the Internet of Things would not be possible without open source software (OSS). Open source supports and quintessentially enables the Internet of Things at many levels. IoT visionaries and implementers alike look to open source because OSS is:

  • Ubiquitous – IoT spans from passive devices to intelligent portals, to network devices and infrastructure, to the cloud and corporate data centers.  At every compute node, OSS has a key role:  embedded and enterprise operating systems (Linux, Android, even iOS);  network infrastructure (most TCP/IP stacks, routing software, Carrier Grade Linux); web software (the LAMP stack, browsers and tools);  Cloud infrastructure (OpenStack, CloudStack, Eucalyptus, and Linux-based virtualization); Machine-to-Machine software stacks (Mango, DeviceHive, Mihini); and RFID software (OpenBeacon, Fostrak, etc.).
  • Scalable – Implementing a ubiquitous Internet of Things requires systems both tiny and titanic.  Open source meets IoT needs for both vertical and horizontal scaling, across all types of specialty and commodity hardware, technically and financially.
  • Critical – Open source provides de facto standardization and interoperability across the IoT for a range of critical functions.  The most obvious is connectivity itself:  critical to build-out of the Internet of Things is Internet Protocol (IP) in general, and IPv6 in particular (both open source), to accommodate trillions of possible devices and addresses.  Joining IP in enabling the IoT are dozens of other open standards and open source implementations – HTTP and HTML, Java, SSH/SSL, audio and video (MPEG, OGG, etc.), OSGi, XMPP – to name a few.

What’s Next for the IoT and OSS

As more Things become trackable, two open source technologies will further enable the build out of the Internet of Things: Big Data:  trillions of Things directly and indirectly generate petabytes and exabytes of associated data.  Legacy/proprietary databases and data warehouse technologies simply cannot scale to accommodate the volume, variety and real-time velocity of IoT data sets.  To meet the IoT big data challenge, IT and data scientists are deploying open source projects like Hadoop, Hive, HBase, Mongo, Couchbase and related big data platforms and NoSQL stores. Search:  in servicing the Internet of Things, search will no longer be concentrated in a few privileged portals (Google, Bing, Baidu et al.).   To support search of the dynamic and ubiquitous IoT, implementers will look to OSS search engines and components, including Apache Lucene/Solr and dozens of domain-specific engines.

Finding Common Cause

Like the more familiar Internet, the Internet of Things represents a confluence of diverse interests.  Stakeholders span industries and cross international boundaries, encompassing a “super community” of end-users and participants from the public and private sectors.   As with other super communities (GENIVI for automotive, OSEHRA for electronic health records), participants in the build out of the IoT realize (or soon will) that common cause outweighs siloed self-interest. An unfortunate example of this dynamic lies in Smart Energy and the Smart Home. A generation of premises management suppliers have failed to gain momentum with narrow, mono-branded offerings with little interoperability or standardization, and even less vision for a workable ecosystem.  The result is a marketplace that caters only to hobbyists and select wealthy homeowners, and a fragmented lackluster commercial landscape. For the Internet of Things to bring real benefit, IoT ecosystem participants must continue to build on open standards, end to end.  And the best way to create, refine and promote open standards is with open source implementation.

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