Author Q&A: Building the Internet of Things

In this month's issue of MSDN Magazine, Colin Miller and Torsten Grabs authored the lead feature titled "Building the Internet of Things." As Miller and Grabs describe it, the Internet of Things (IoT) is the emerging connected fabric of applications, devices and endpoints engaged in the constant production, consumption, sharing and management of data.  I caught up with Colin Miller, who is a product unit manager of the .NET Micro Framework at Microsoft, and asked him about some of the challenges, opportunities and expectations around the Internet of Things.

Michael Desmond: How does the Internet of Things differ from embedded systems management?

Colin Miller: The "Internet of things" is a very large bucket that encompasses a wide variety of connected device scenarios. This is a transition from traditional embedded systems by massively increasing the number and depth of the connections. Systems management is certainly an issue for IoT as you start deploying devices in much larger numbers, but it is only part of the story. The other big part of the story is the data that is generated by this massive new set of endpoints, how it will be managed and through what protocols.

MD: What makes IoT so important to rank and file business developers?

CM: There are expected to be tens of billions of new connected devices in the next few years. This explosion is driven both by need and opportunity. The need comes from economic realities -- like we cannot produce enough energy for our growing demand without managing it, or the fact that we cannot build enough assisted living facilities and we have to enable elders to age in place. The opportunity side includes things like how to use the explosion of information we have. Now you can have the ads on the bus tailored to your interests and to your location.

The other interesting aspect of IoT is that is it not just better automation of existing processes. An example of better automation would be intelligent vending machines that request a visit when they are short on supplies or change. In addition to this, IoT also enables entirely new business models. Sticking with the vending machines, I can now raise the prices when there is a concert next door and lower them when the contents are approaching expiration so that I can sell them at some price, rather than throw them away.

MD: What kind of infrastructure work is being done to enable IoT type scenarios?

CM: There is a lot of infrastructure work under way, but most of it seems to be in Europe and Asia. China has proclaimed IoT as one of the core initiatives of its 12th five-year plan and has launched pilots in five cities to start to build out infrastructure. They have also started departments of IoT in their education system to make sure that they have the engineering resources needed to push forward aggressively. The EU is involved in a number of standards efforts mostly based on IP communications.

MD: Are the bulk of embedded systems becoming smart and truly connected enough to make the IoT concept viable and compelling, or is there a lot more work to be done there?

CM: Whether the bulk of the IoT applications will be existing embedded systems becoming smarter or new implementations is not something I am sure about. I am constantly surprised by entirely new applications of connected devices in areas where there was nothing before. The exciting thing is that there are a large number of startup efforts moving very fast in this area and doing great, and ingenious things. There is a great quote in the Economist that I can dig up if you need it that says essentially, IoT is not something dreamed up by the big companies to sell more; it is driven by real need.

MD: Where are we really in terms of the IoT adoption curve? And what kind of advances can we expect over the next year, five years, and decade?

CM: While we can build IoT applications now, much of the technology that we are using was originally designed for a different purpose. I expect to see a significant evolution of the tools we will use to build these solutions, mostly in the next five years. I expect there will be a coalescing of the currently separate database and cloud and tools technologies into seamless suites that greatly reduce the risk and effort of these solutions.

MD: What are some of the biggest misconceptions you see when it comes to developers understanding the IoT concept?

CM: This is pretty self-serving but you don’t have to be an embedded programmer to build devices new. .NET Framework comes down to the small and inexpensive processors, and the same folks who do the Azure integration can program the devices in many cases.

MD: What advice do you have for developers who are looking to engage with an IoT scenario?

CM: Think outside to the box. This is opening up all sorts of "blue ocean" opportunities.

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