What is IoT? The internet of things explained

The internet of things (IoT) is a network of connected smart devices providing rich data, but it can also be a security nightmare.

thread weave colorful network web

The internet of things (IoT) is a catch-all term for the growing number of electronics that aren't traditional computing devices, but are connected to the internet to send data, receive instructions or both.

There's an incredibly broad range of ‘things’ that fall under the IoT umbrella: Internet-connected ‘smart’ versions of traditional appliances such as refrigerators and light bulbs; gadgets that could only exist in an internet-enabled world such as Alexa-style digital assistants; and internet-enabled sensors that are transforming factories, healthcare, transportation, distribution centers and farms.

What is the internet of things?

The IoT brings internet connectivity, data processing and analytics to the world of physical objects. For consumers, this means interacting with the global information network without the intermediary of a keyboard and screen (Alexa, for example).

In enterprise settings, IoT can bring the same efficiencies to manufacturing processes and distribution systems that the internet has long delivered to knowledge work. Billions of embedded internet-enabled sensors worldwide provide an incredibly rich set of data that companies can use to improve the safety of their operations, track assets and reduce manual processes.

Data from machines can be used to predict whether equipment will break down, giving manufacturers advance warning to prevent long stretches of downtime. Researchers can also use IoT devices to gather data about customer preferences and behavior, though that can have serious implications for privacy and security.

How big is the IoT?

In a word: enormous. Priceonomics breaks it down: There were more than 50 billion IoT devices in 2020, and those devices generated 4.4 zettabytes of data. (A zettabyte is a trillion gigabytes.) By comparison, in 2013 IoT devices generated a mere 100 billion gigabytes. The amount of money to be made in the IoT market is similarly staggering; estimates on the value of the market in 2025 range from $1.6 trillion to $14.4 trillion.

In its Global IoT Market Forecast, IoT Analytics Research predicts there will be 27 billion active IoT connections (excluding computers, laptops, phones, cellphones and tablets) by 2025. However, the company did lower its forecast based on the ongoing chip shortage, which it expects to impact the number of connected IoT devices beyond 2023.

How does the IoT work?

The first element of an IoT system is the device that gathers data. Broadly speaking, these are internet-connected devices, so they each have an IP address. They range in complexity from autonomous mobile robots and forklifts that move products around factory floors and warehouses, to simple sensors that monitor the temperature or scan for gas leaks in buildings.

They also include personal devices such as fitness trackers that monitor the number of steps individuals take each day.

In the next step in the IoT process, collected data is transmitted from the devices to a gathering point. Moving the data can be done wirelessly using a range of technologies or over wired networks. Data can be sent over the internet to a data center or the cloud. Or the transfer can be performed in phases, with intermediary devices aggregating the data, formatting it, filtering it, discarding irrelevant or duplicative data, then sending the important data along for further analysis.

The final step, data processing and analytics, can take place in data centers or the cloud, but sometimes that’s not an option. In the case of critical devices such as shutoffs in industrial settings, the delay of sending data from the device to a remote data center is too great. The round-trip time for sending data, processing it, analyzing it and returning instructions (close that valve before the pipes burst) can take too long.

In such cases edge computing can come into play, where a smart edge device can aggregate data, analyze it and fashion responses if necessary, all within relatively close physical distance, thereby reducing delay. Edge devices also have upstream connectivity for sending data to be further processed and stored.

A growing number of edge computing use cases, such as autonomous vehicles that need to make split-second decisions, is accelerating the development of edge technologies that can process and analyze data immediately without going to the cloud.

Network World How Internet of Things Works diagram Network World / IDG

How the internet of things works. 

Examples of IoT devices

Essentially, any device that can gather and transmit information about the physical world can participate in the IoT ecosystem. Smart home appliances, RFID tags, and industrial sensors are a few examples. These sensors can monitor a range of factors including temperature and pressure in industrial systems, status of critical parts in machinery, patient vital signs, the use of water and electricity, among many, many other possibilities.

Factory robots can be considered IoT devices, as well as autonomous vehicles and robots that move products around industrial settings and warehouses. Municipalities exploring smart city ecosystems are using IoT and machine-to-machine (M2M) sensors to enable applications such as traffic monitoring, street light management, and crime prevention through camera feeds.

Other examples include fitness wearables and home security systems. There are also more generic devices, like the Raspberry Pi or Arduino, that let you build your own IoT endpoints. Even though you might think of your smartphone as a pocket-sized computer, it may well also be beaming data about your location and behavior to back-end services in very IoT-like ways.

IoT device management

In order to work together, all those devices need to be authenticated, provisioned, configured, and monitored, as well as patched and updated as necessary. Too often, all this happens within the context of a single vendor's proprietary systems – or, it doesn't happen at all, which is even more risky. But the industry is starting to transition to a standards-based device management model, which allows IoT devices to interoperate and will ensure that devices aren't orphaned.

IoT communication standards and protocols

When IoT gadgets talk to other devices, they can use a wide variety of communication standards and protocols, many tailored to devices with limited processing capabilities or low power consumption. Some of these you've definitely heard of — Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, for instance — but many more are specialized for the world of IoT. ZigBee, for example, is a wireless protocol for low-power, short-distance communication, while message queuing telemetry transport (MQTT) is a publish/subscribe messaging protocol for devices connected by unreliable or delay-prone networks. (See Network World’s glossary of IoT standards and protocols.)

The increased speeds and bandwidth of 5G cellular networks are expected to benefit IoT. In its Global IoT Market Forecast, IoT Analytics Research predicted a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 159% for 5G-based IoT devices from 2021 through 2025.

IoT, edge computing and the cloud


Network World - How Edge Computing Works [diagram] Network World / IDG

How edge computing enables IoT.

For many IoT systems, the stream of data is coming in fast and furious, which has given rise to a new technology category called edge computing, which consists of appliances placed relatively close to IoT devices, fielding the flow of data from them. These machines process that data and send only relevant material back to a more centralized system for analysis. For instance, imagine a network of dozens of IoT security cameras. Instead of bombarding the building's security operations center (SoC) with simultaneous live-streams, edge-computing systems can analyze the incoming video and only alert the SoC when one of the cameras detects movement.

And where does that data go once it’s been processed? Well, it might go to your centralized data center, but more often than not it will end up in the cloud. The elastic nature of cloud computing is great for IoT scenarios where data might come in intermittently or asynchronously.

Cloud vendors offer IoT platforms

The cloud giants (Microsoft, Amazon, Google) are trying to sell more than just a place to stash the data your sensors have collected. They're offering full IoT platforms, which bundle together much of the functionality to coordinate the elements that make up IoT systems. In essence, an IoT platform serves as middleware that connects the IoT devices and edge gateways with the applications you use to deal with the IoT data. That said, every platform vendor seems to have a slightly different definition of what an IoT platform is, the better to distance themselves from the competition.

IoT and Big Data analytics

Imagine a scenario where people at a theme park are encouraged to download an app that offers information about the park. At the same time, the app sends GPS signals back to the park's management to help predict wait times in lines. With that information, the park can take action in the short term (by adding more staff to increase the capacity of some attractions, for instance) and the long term (by learning which rides are the most and least popular at the park).

The theme park example is small potatoes compared to many real-world IoT data-harvesting operations. Many big data operations use information harvested from IoT devices, correlated with other data points, to get insight into human behavior.

For example, X-Mode released a map based on tracking location data of people who partied at spring break in Ft. Lauderdale in March of 2020, even as the coronavirus pandemic was gaining speed in the United States, showing where all those people ended up across the country. The map was shocking not only because it showed the potential spread of the virus, but also because it illustrated just how closely IoT devices can track us. (For more on IoT and analytics, click here.)

IoT and AI

The volume of data IoT devices can gather is far larger than any human can deal with in a useful way, and certainly not in real time. We've already seen that edge computing devices are needed just to make sense of the raw data coming in from the IoT endpoints. There's also the need to detect and deal with data that might be just plain wrong.

Many IoT providers are offering machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities to make sense of the collected data. IBM's Watson platform, for instance, can be trained on IoT data sets to produce useful results in the field of predictive maintenance — analyzing data from drones to distinguish between trivial damage to a bridge and cracks that need attention, for instance. Meanwhile, Arm has announced low-power chips that can provide AI capabilities on the IoT endpoints themselves. The company also launched new IoT processors, such as the Cortex-M85 and Corstone-1000 that supports AI at the edge.

IoT and business applications

Business uses for IoT include keeping track of customers, inventory, and the status of important components. Here are four industries that have been transformed by IoT:

  • Oil and gas: Isolated drilling sites can be better monitored with IoT sensors than by human intervention.
  • Agriculture: Granular data about crops growing in fields derived from IoT sensors can be used to increase yields.
  • HVAC: Climate control systems across the country can be monitored by manufacturers.
  • Brick-and-mortar retail: Customers can be micro-targeted with offers on their phones as they linger in certain parts of a store.

More generally, enterprises are looking for IoT solutions that can help in four areas: energy use, asset tracking, security, and customer experience.

Industrial IoT

The IIoT is a subset of the Internet of Things made up of connected sensors and instrumentation for machinery in the transport, energy, and industrial sectors. The IIoT includes some of the most well-established sectors of the IoT market, including the descendants of some devices that predate the IoT moniker. IIoT devices are often longer-lived than most IoT endpoints – some remain in service for a decade or more – and as a result may use legacy, proprietary protocols and standards that make it difficult to move to modern platforms.

Consumer IoT

The move of IoT into consumer devices is more recent but much more visible to ordinary people. Connected devices range from fitness wearables that track our movements to internet-enabled thermometers. Probably the most prominent IoT consumer product is the home assistant, such as Amazon Alexa or Google Home.

IoT security and vulnerabilities

IoT devices have earned a bad reputation when it comes to security. PCs and smartphones are "general use" computers designed to last for years, with complex, user-friendly OSes that now have automated patching and security features built in.

IoT devices, by contrast, are often basic gadgets with stripped-down OSes. They are designed for individual tasks and minimal human interaction, and cannot be patched, monitored or updated. Because many IoT devices are ultimately running a version of Linux under the hood with various network ports available, they make tempting targets for hackers.

Perhaps nothing demonstrated this more than the Mirai botnet, which was created by a teenager telnetting into home security cameras and baby monitors that had easy-to-guess default passwords, and which ended up launching one of history's largest DDoS attacks.

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