The Internet of Things vs. The Network

ToasterI remember the days of hooking my computer up to a 1200/75 baud modem, listening to the squeaks and burrs of it handshaking with the other end of the connection and then having to do whatever I wanted to do online as quickly as possible to avoid massive telephone costs.

When broadband came along with ADSL, all this seemed to be in the past — a permanent connection and (at the time) an eat-all-you-can data allowance.

This was fine when all that was attached were one or two PCs and it was pretty much email and a bit of web sharing that was going on.

Now, we have multiple computing devices streaming music and video — and then we have connected hi-fi systems, security cameras, light controllers… you name it.  It looks like this internet of things is going to stress the connection between the home and the rest of the world unless something is done about it.  We could find ourselves at the point where the straw that breaks the network camel’s back is when we just add that internet-enabled toaster…

It does look like there will be many more home items connecting to the network over time:  intelligent grids for power and water utilities will need smart meters; increasing use of home automation will mean that more items will come with wireless or wired networking capabilities built into them.  Already, the all-you-can-eat deal is fading away: “fair usage” agreements are more the norm, and caps or data throttling are part and parcel of many deals.

Therefore, we need to be able to intelligently separate out the home from the wider world — a lot of the data that could traverse the line between the two probably shouldn’t, and this provides the key as to how best to optimize the environment.

Small, full-blown computers, such as the Raspberry Pi are now commonplace — and cheap.  A network of these devices built into a home can intelligently monitor what is going on and can filter out all the stuff that does not need to go across the network.

For example, consider an intelligent electricity grid.  As the UK and other countries head toward a power deficit, the idea of a network which can decide what gets turned off to prevent full blown power cuts becomes more attractive.  This could be done by a central system polling devices in the home and making decisions, such as being able to turn power off to the freezer for a few hours and still keeping food temperatures within limits.  It will still have to poll the freezer on a continuous basis to make sure that the temperature hasn’t risen sharply, for example through someone opening the door.

The intelligent home can operate on an “ask and ye shall receive” basis, where the grid informs the house that an energy deficit is going to happen, and the house lets the grid know what devices can be turned off within the specific house.  The grid makes a request for the freezer to be turned off, and the home monitors the temperature of the freezer itself and turns the power back on again when required without the need to send more data over the network.

This can be done with security systems, with certain types of data where a meshed Pi network could act as a content delivery network and cache certain types of data for the house as a whole.  It can be programmed to carry out advanced actions, such that a single, small data packet sent from outside kicks off a far more complex sequence of events in the house — for example, I use my mobile to say that I’m on my way home: a single command goes to the house, and the mesh of controllers turn on certain lights for me, set the temperature to a predetermined level, turns on the oven (or makes that slice of toast) and runs a bath for me — whatever I have decided should be done.

Without the intelligent home, the internet of things could swamp existing networks with large amounts of small but chatty data.  Hopefully, the emergence of cheap, powerful systems such as the Pi will help to put in place the control that will be so desperately needed.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons