How will sensor networks integrate?

At the moment sensor networks have little to do with the rest of IT. This will have to change.


Stand-alone processes and networks that hail from the industrial, manufacturing, and facilities sides of the business are destined to merge onto the IT infrastructure.

In the radio frequency identification area (RFID), for example, companies like Reva Systems and Cisco are helping bring supply-chain tracking information collected by RFID tags into upstream ERP and other applications. They use controllers or switch/router blades, respectively, with middleware and IP communication to merge RFID reader networks with corporate Ethernet networks.

Similarly, “islands” of wireless sensor networks now can join the corporate IT infrastructure. One motivator is to use sensor data to help comply with overall operating regulations that span the facilities and IT disciplines.

For example, start-up Arch Rock has announced a $4,995 wireless sensor network package that the firm says will allow companies to deploy, in an hour, sensor network pilots that integrate with enterprise applications in the form of Web services. According to the company, IT personnel can create custom applications for monitoring physical conditions without embedded programming. One application might be to granularly measure variations in temperature and humidity in the corporate data center to optimise conditions while minimising HVAC costs, says Roland Acra, Arch Rock CEO.

Wireless sensor networks today use long-life, low-power motes (tiny self-contained packages with processor, memory, collections of sensors, battery and mesh communications capabilities) to monitor physical and environmental conditions, such as the status of machinery in factories. Motes allow timely measurement readings under harsh conditions, such as in chemical plants and refineries, without wiring. Wiring can be expensive - if not impossible - in certain places, such as on noisy, vibrating oil rigs where pumps and compressors need continual monitoring. Motes operate, in part, as tiny wireless IP routers to alleviate the cabling burden.

Linking up to the RFID silo As with the RFID infrastructure, sensor networks have traditionally been built, monitored, and managed as a single silo. As time marches on, the ability to gain contextual access to sensor measurements through a traditional PC screen should help enterprises improve safety conditions; lower costs of managing environmental conditions; comply with operational mandates; and open the door to new sensor-based applications.

Arch Rock’s Primer Pack “extends the spectrum of people who can do something with sensors to anyone who knows Web services,” says Acra. Before, only niche programmers could build sensor networks and, to make changes to the network capabilities, “you had to go into the firmware to do it,” he says.

Included in this start-up kit: six sensor nodes; a gateway server that translates embedded applications into Web services; a bridge node for communications between the gateway and sensors; and a Web services development environment.

Arch Rock is likely to be followed by competitors such as Crossbow, Emerson, Tendril and others.

What will it do for you? What does convergence of wireless subnetworks onto the IT infrastructure mean for your company organisationally?

Operations/facilities management has traditionally represented a completely separate discipline from that of information technology and computer-based communications, notes Harry Forbes, senior analyst at ARC Advisory Group in Boston. However, particularly as compliance regulations get stricter and extend across multiple business disciplines, these fiefdoms will likely have to go through the pain of merging - or at least cooperating.

“Now with the need to provide site-wide services and comprehensive, uniform security policies, people are trying to build an integrated infrastructure,” observes Forbes.

If nothing else, says Forbes, wireless network usage across both disciplines will be cause for collaboration, given that an organisation will have to cohesively manage its use of unlicensed spectrum to avoid interference and assure data availability. This has long been the case in the healthcare industry, for example, where generally a biomedical engineer is responsible for coordinating the use of various spectra by different types of equipment and networks throughout the facility.

“The manufacturers we’ve seen collaborate best keep an ongoing dialog between IT and production staff,” says Forbes. “What makes their discussions productive is that they talk about their service requirements and available service capabilities, rather than just saying, ‘You don’t understand what I have to deal with.’ It takes a sustained effort and mutual respect” to pull this off, he says.

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