Breaking down the Internet of Silos

We face three major challenges when it comes to accelerating the growth and the potential of the Internet of Things, according to Gary Atkinson, Director of Emerging Technologies at chip designer ARM.They are:Simplifying connectivityGetting...


We face three major challenges when it comes to accelerating the growth and the potential of the Internet of Things, according to Gary Atkinson, Director of Emerging Technologies at chip designer ARM.

They are:

  • Simplifying connectivity
  • Getting security right
  • Enabling accelerated applications development

Gary ought to know. ARM is no ordinary supplier. It is a chip design company, which designs the core base technology which is then licensed to the major chip manufacturers, especially in the mobile phone market. Its revenues are its royalties from its intellectual property. Such is this Cambridge UK-based company's influence in today's communications infrastructure that virtually every mobile phone contains its technology. ARM's reach is currently extending  deep into the world of embedded chips. That looks set to be, through billions and billions of sensor chips, a £1 trillion market by 2020 with unimaginable impact.

The emerging Internet of Things world - or perhaps more accurately “Internet of Everything” world - is currently being held back by what Atkinson calls the Internet of Silos - huge amounts of unconnected activity in each of the three major challenge areas.

ARM, as an independent intellectual property company is leading, or  deeply involved with, several collaborative initiatives, using open software, open hardware and open standards, to get all parts of the Internet of Things chain to talk together. It is only when “things” do talk together that the full value of the Internet of Things can be realised.

Simplifying Connectivity: the bottleneck

A major current bottleneck is enabling direct Internet connections for sensor and actuator devices outside buildings.  There's no great problem connecting sensors inside buildings to monitor activities such as heating or lighting - there are a number of mesh networking technologies available for that. 

The problem is connecting cheaply outside to enable a range of sensor-based activity - from monitoring patients health while on the move, or traffic light or street lighting applications, to deploying cost wide area connectivity to remote industrial complexes such as oil fields or utility plants.

Currently the cellular network is not economic for very small sensors The pricing structure of the 2G, 3G and 4G networks (which need to recoup their huge investments) is far too high. That is also the case with proprietary networks such as IAN (Industrial, Scientific and Medical) radio band. 

Low-cost Internet of Things connectivity has needed the cost and battery performance of Bluetooth but with the range of cellular.

Simplifying Connectivity: the White Space and Iceni breakthrough

We are currently seeing a breakthrough in Internet connectivity for low end sensors and actuators from another Cambridge UK company, wireless networking specialist Neul, which is working closely with ARM and other collaborators on communicating through a very newly available spectrum called White Space. That is the UHF TV White Space spectrum (470-790 MHz)opened up by the UK's nationwide move from analogue to digital TV.

This White Space spectrum is ideal for low cost, low power sensor connectivity. It is license-free and provides universal coverage, and unlike the wireless spectrum it does not rely on cells of connectivity. Also, being low frequency the signals go further, enabling smaller antennae and requiring low power.

Since last year a consortium of companies brought together by ARM and Neul formed the Weightless Special Interest Group  to design effective standards in this new area to promote the compatibility of devices using this new spectrum. Gary Atkinson is Chairman of the Board of Weightless.

The fruit of this activity, recently announced, was the Iceni chip. This is a $2 radio connected silicon chip which has a range of up to 10km and a battery life of 10 years. Prototypes are currently being distributed to chip manufacturers for evaluation.

This Iceni chip, itself embedded into the Weightless ecosystem, is a major breakthrough to enable really low cost machine to machine interfacing. The name Iceni resonates as a disruptive technology - the Iceni was the tribe headed by Boudicca  who caused such devastation to the incumbent Roman establishment in 1st century AD Britain.

Security through Collaboration

ARM is also a key driver of Trustonic, a cross-the-board consortium of major companies, such as Symantec, Samsung and Mastercard which breaks down silos with the payments industry and revamps the basis of security down to the chip level.  Trustonic deploys ARM's Trustzone technology which is integrated into its chips at the hardware level to protect against software attacks. That consortium embraces the whole extended supply chain, from silicon IP companies, to chip manufacturers, trusted service companies,content suppliers, enterprise level security companies and payments providers.

ARM is looking to extend that capability to the micro controller level keeping the same security paradigm.

Advances in Accelerated Applications Development

ARM is pursuing applications development at two broad levels. Firstly with large manufacturers - looking to deploys its current and future chip technology into major manufacturing sectors especially automotive, engineering and energy industries. The real prize there is improving energy efficiencies through smart chip deployment within heavy duty electrical motors. There are currently huge inefficiencies with huge potential savings.

At the other end of the scale, ARM is looking to promote its underpinning technology to the open source Arduino community and crowd-funded KickStarter projects through low cost evaluation boards. Its technology also sits at the heart of the open source Raspberry Pi boards, of which around 1million have been sold to date.

ARM community building activity here revolves round its rapid prototyping for open source software based micro-controllers initiative called Mbed , which allows developers to code “right down to the metal” - to the chip level. That Mbed rapid prototyping platform enables developers to test middle ware stacks in the Cloud and so get up to speed quickly with applications  development and deployment.

The new Challenge

The Internet of Silos is breaking down increasingly in these three key areas, opening up huge economies of scale and much improved efficiencies, as well as whole new application areas, deploying "fit and forget" 10-year life chips. However, this will still require infrastructural investment by hard-pressed and cash-poor town  and city authorities.

The rewards and the savings will be large, as well as much kudos for early movers, but there is still a lot of uphill spadework to be done before we see co-ordinated widespread deployment of the Internet of Things - or the Internet of Everything. But current unifying technological developments augur well for rapid deployments and demonstrable returns when the investment log jams do break.

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