Henry Lawson, Market Research Consultant at BSRIA examines the possibilities of achieving common standards which are appropriate for the myriad of different “things” that will potentially be part of the Internet of Things
I live about 50 miles to the west of London. When I take the train into central London I often find it ironic that the journey takes about the same time as it did when the first trains trundled out of Reading 175 years ago.
Part of this is due to sheer congestion on the railways, but partly also to the fact that the original railway was created by one of the greatest engineers of all time, Brunel, who set up his own standard – a seven-foot gauge allowing faster, safer transit than Stephenson’s earlier narrower gauge. As we all know, almost two centuries later the UK, including Reading, is still using Stephenson’s narrower, arguably inferior gauge.
This is perhaps the most glaring example of the dichotomy that states that (1) technology needs standards, especially where it connects different systems and (2) the standard that prevails will not necessarily be “the best”, and worst case may actually inhibit innovation.
The railways of course also connected cities, in the process standardising time itself across the UK for the first time. Today, various forecasts are telling us that by 2020, between 20 and 30 billion devices will be connected to the Internet of Things (IoT). This means that, in theory, information and instructions can be shared by everything from the watch on my wrist to the car that I drive (or that drives itself) to the buildings where I live and work, and encompass the functioning of whole regions and countries and their infrastructures.
This then raises huge questions as to how this data can be shared and utilised securely, quickly and efficiently and without creating unintended problems. If we are going to avoid anarchy, there is clearly going to be a need for standards. But how is it technically possible to achieve common standards which are appropriate for the myriad of different “things” that will potentially be part of the “Internet of Things”, let alone to ensure that they are widely adopted – unlike Brunel’s brilliantly simple but now largely forgotten seven-foot gauge?
There is a long tradition of establishing standards in particular countries, in specific industries, which sometimes come to be recognised internationally. But a “standard of everything” to match the “Internet of Things” runs the risk of being too general and high level or too complex and cumbersome, not to mention too prone to being overtaken by events.
Predictably, what we are seeing is that different organisations are tackling the problem at different levels and from different angles. Well-established institutions are offering standards alongside consortia created especially for this purpose. This may seem like a recipe for chaos, if not a contradiction in terms. After all, promoting multiple standards is a bit like saying that if standards are good, then double standards are twice as good.
So what has actually been happening “on the ground”? In our own field of smart buildings, US-based Project Haystack is focussing on “developing semantic modelling solutions for data related to smart devices including building equipment systems, automation and control devices, sensors and sensing devices”. Sponsors include established building automation suppliers like Siemens, and Lynxspring, who are perhaps best known for their initiatives in building cybersecurity.
Looking to the wider field of smart cities, in the UK the HyperCat Consortium has been developing “a hypermedia catalogue format designed for exposing information about IoT assets over the web”. The Board includes representatives from IBM, Cisco, Fujitsu and Accenture. The consortium has also attracted support from some major names in local government and in the academic world.
A slightly different approach is taken by Vorto, an initiative supported by the Eclipse Foundation, which exists mainly to promote open-source software and whose members include IBM, SAP, Oracle, CA Group and Bosch. Bosch, the primary driver behind Vorto, describes the key objective as being to deal with the problem of “industry-specific implementations that provide individual abstraction layers for specific groups of devices.” Vorto can create the code required for different types of devices to communicate efficiently.
At a more granular level, the LoRa initiative provides Low Power Wide Area Networking based on a specification intended for wireless battery operated Things in regional, national or global networks. Key supporters include IBM, Cisco and numerous network providers.
It is clear from this that key industry players are already involved in initiatives at a number of levels. IBM, in particular, is actively engaged in several, which suggests either that the company is “hedging its bets” – which is often a sensible strategy, or that it sees them as compatible or even complementary.
While de facto standards often emerge from commercial success, they are also of course frequently created de jure by national or even supranational authorities – think of the importance of Building Regulations and energy targets to the UK Building Services Industry.
In this area, we are starting to see movement. In 2014 the British Standards Institute (BSI) claimed that the UK was the “first country to develop Smart Cities standards”, when it published a Publically Available Specification: PAS 181 “Smart city framework – Guide to establishing strategies for smart cities and communities”.
Not to be outdone, the same year the International Standards Organisation (ISO) also published ISO 37150 Smart community infrastructures – Review of existing activities relevant to metrics. Even the United Nations has been paying heed to the need for standards for the smart world. The UN’s telecommunications arm, the ITU first set up a Global Standards Initiative on Internet of Things (IoT-GSI) which concluded its activities in July 2015, and which was succeeded by Study Group 20: IoT and its applications including smart cities and communities (SC&C).
There are also numerous other initiatives and projects scattered around the world, sponsored by various bodies and consortia. At this point, you might start to have a nightmare about a multi-faceted Tower of Babel. Who sets the standard for all the standards?
In practice, these initiatives tend to fall into three main broad categories: there are those like Project Haystack which focus on a particular sector: in this instance the built environment. There is always going to be a need for targeted standards of this kind unless that is you create a single gargantuan all-encompassing data model capable of covering all verticals and applications.
The key requirement is that such specialized standards can offer a clear “interface” with others. Other standards initiatives like LoRa concentrate on one of the “building blocks” of the IoT, in this case, the need for wireless wide area networks (WANS). The national and international standards bodies tend to look at more broad functions and relationships and practices, rather than the nuts and bolts.
At present, most of the IoT standards are fairly restricted in their impact, by geography, function or by vertical. But as the IoT expands, and has more impact on day-to-day life and business – which inevitably means more problems and controversies, we can expect the demand for more rigorous standards to intensify. Cybersecurity is one obvious example, given that fridges, cars, planes and buildings are all susceptible to being hacked, so it is no surprise to see companies like Lynxspring taking an active role. As the worlds of big data, buildings and infrastructure converge, we can expect concerns over data privacy and data security to continue to escalate.
Public concern is in turn likely to spur governments into action and possible further regulation and imposed standards. The fact that such government action is sometimes a kneejerk response that may be poorly thought out does not lessen its likely impact.
Other players that can be expected to become more influential include Apple and Google. As the current dominant players in the Smart Devices market, the apps developed on their platforms will be a key component in a fully functioning smart world, and companies developing IoT solutions will at least need to take them into account. Past experience suggests that other new major players are likely to emerge with similar levels of influence.
So what can we do about all this? My advice to anyone who is concerned about the future impact of IoT standards on your business is to find out about the existing standards initiatives in your area of activity and to get involved, ensuring that your voice is heard.
Most of these initiatives are relatively new, and for those who “buy-in” now, there is a real opportunity to help to mould them so that they meet your needs, whether as a supplier or as a user of services.
True, not all of these initiatives will bear fruit. Some will merge, be overtaken or wither on the vine. But in today’s world of revolutionary change, a simple attitude of “wait and see” or “carry on regardless” is simply not going to be sustainable, in any sense of the word.
Market Research Consultant
Tel: 01344 465600