Bridging the IoT divide

A vision for the connection of people, process, data and things, the Internet of Things currently functions more as a collection of discrete solutions. At an individual case level, IoT – or even IoE – implementations typically are comprised of various sensors, networks that connect devices or their data to cloud repositories, and analytics capabilities that deliver the intelligence needed to parse data and build action applications, which are each delivered by specialist vendor organizations with proprietary technologies. At an industry level, many of the integration challenges associated with combining the requisite hardware, software and devices and with linkages across disparate communications protocols are now being addressed through standards work, through co-development of solutions and through the nascent creation of vertically oriented IoT architectures. But the Rosetta Stone that connects all things, across all technologies, industries and geographies remains elusive – an IoT Holy Grail that promises harmony but has languished out of practical reach.

Dr. Mohamed Ibnkahla, Department of Systems & Computer Engineering, Carleton University
Dr. Mohamed Ibnkahla, Department of Systems & Computer Engineering, Carleton University

A professor in the Department of Systems and Computer Engineering at Carleton University is looking to change that. Mohamed Ibnkahla, appointed to a newly created Sensor Technology Research Chair funded by Cisco Canada, is a specialist in sensors and wireless networking who aims to build the big IoT solutions that will contribute to the resolution of issues on the national agenda – the environment, education, health care, energy management, transport and city governance – while supporting the university’s sustainability and global prosperity goals. During his time at Queen’s University, prior to the Carleton appointment, Dr. Ibnkahla applied sensor networks to track species at risk, to monitor the environment, to trace food and to improve highway safety, projects that he described as “applying sensors to specific tasks in standalone applications.”

With the new chair, Ibnkahla’s scope is much broader: “to connect everything, and to come up with the network architectures and sensor deployments that target not only specific areas in terms of location, but also the multiple applications that may be found in a city or in the country, and which may be completely different.” To illustrate the breadth of this vision, Ibnkahla pointed to applications within Smart Home – intelligent thermometers or sensors to monitor electricity consumption – that operate in siloed fashion within the environment, contrasting this with a Smart Home where all sensors are integrated and where all stakeholders, including the home owner, the utility, the insurance company or the city, have access and can make use of sensor data. “The Internet of Things is really the connection of many types of sensors, integrated in a single application,” he explained, and “my job is to deploy different types of sensors for different applications and connect them together in a data management platform that will integrate the data, analyze it, and provide this data to whomever needs it, where they need it.”

A tall order indeed. Key issues in the connection of all “things” has been the use of different communication protocols by different devices and the wide range of standards that operate at different layers of the IoT stack. While no means exhaustive (a quick count of IoT standards at the physical, data link, networking and application layers quickly outstrips 40), the graphic below developed by researchers in the Butler Project highlights some of the complexity involved in creating pervasive linkage across IoT solutions. “It’s really diverse,” Ibnkahla agreed, “and a big challenge to consumers, who are required to buy multiple technologies for individual tasks.” His objective, on the other hand, is “to bridge these technologies which are a reality in the market,” not through the imposition of a favoured standard, but rather through integration that provides seamless IoT operation but is transparent to the user.

IoT protocols, Butler Project

At the sensor level, device characteristics may impose their own integration challenges: designed as low power objects in order to survive in the field, many devices operate in constrained networks with little local computing resource to support integration. Ibnkahla’s response to this issue is to extend beyond changes to existing hardware nodes to focus on software transformation – to build a platform that hosts various technologies locally and features a protocol stack that enables the support of as many technologies as possible. “So if you bring your Bluetooth device, your ZigBee or WiFi device, you connect them to the bridging platform,” he explained, “and they will all work together – enabling local data processing at the edge or via the cloud.” And unlike the Smart Home entertainment hub, which provides central management of multiple devices that operate using similar protocols, Ibnkahla’s project is designed to support integration of very different technologies that might, for example, hail from the device manufacturer, the utility provider, or city managers, moving past M2M, peer sharing or standalone applications to create a “system of systems,” that can help bring the vision of IoT to life.

The ‘secret sauce’ in the Carleton initiative will be based on Internet protocols, “as this is the easiest way to do it,” Ibnkahla explained, but the strategy is to provide an architecture that is as flexible as possible. As a result, the platform will be context aware, reconfigurable, and able to respond to its environment, rather than reliant on a specific protocol. Ideally, the goal is to design a ‘plug and play’ system that allows users to access whatever services are required without any intervention.

For Ibnkahla, Cisco support – $1.8 million over nine years for the new chair, but including IoT expertise, engineering collaboration in the new Cisco Innovation Centre, and supply of the IT infrastructure backbone needed for a test bed – will help push this research to the next level, while providing the “seed investment” that may act as the foundation for access to additional funding, programs and collaboration with industry and academia that can widen the scope of the Carleton initiative. Ibnkahla intends to work with graduate, post graduate and undergraduate students in developing his IoT vision, but also with researchers across the university community. In this engagement, he will also benefit from Cisco efforts to support academic research at other institutions: over the past several years, the company has funded eleven research chairs in disciplines targeted for their ability to help boost regional economic development as well as opportunity for Cisco technologies. Going forward, Ibnkahla is hoping to contribute to the coordination of IoT research conducted at different universities, to the leverage of researchers’ particular strengths to enable the focus and collaboration that would allow Canada to drive its competitive position in the global IoT research arena.

Rick Huijbregts, Americas managing director for digitization and VP innovation for Cisco Canada
Rick Huijbregts, Americas managing director for digitization and VP innovation for Cisco Canada

According to Rick Huijbregts, Americas managing director for digitization and VP innovation for Cisco Canada, with creation of the Carleton chair, Cisco Canada is completing plans to build a network of research chairs across Canada designed around “the digitization journey.” Cisco’s overall goal, he explained, is to provide the technology needed to help customers “digitize, redefine and differentiate their businesses” through the delivery, with partners, of the Internet of Everything. To support this, the company launched its “innovation agenda” comprised of investment in Canada, jobs announcements, a ventures fund, and build out of an ecosystem that would foster strong Canadian innovation across the IoT stack. A key piece of this last agenda item, the research chairs represent a strategic investment: “we believe we need to lead the R&D and we need to be at the forefront of predicting and defining where the world is going. But we don’t know everything ourselves so have partnered with the best universities and brightest people to give us an innovation platform that we can build a dialogue around,” Huijbregts added.

At the top of this architectural line of attack, sit several Cisco funded chairs targeted at business outcomes, including a Smart Grid chair at the University of Waterloo, healthcare transformation at the University of Alberta, a mining chair at the University of Saskatchewan and research in environmental sustainability at the University of British Columbia. In addition, Cisco has funded chairs aimed at more horizontal applications, such as collaboration technologies at the University of Winnipeg and Big Data and analytics at the University of New Brunswick. As Huijbregts explained, the “Carleton chair for research into sensors rounds out the bottom of our architecture. We believe that 40 percent of all connected devices [in the field] by 2020 will be sensors, and while we work with partners on this, we believe we have a role to play in R&D and in the definition, direction and vision of these connected things. We met Mohamed Ibnkahla and the agenda they had at Carleton and we thought it was a perfect fit.” In the Cisco schema, then, the Carleton team offers Cisco R&D access to sensor innovation to connect smart objects at the bottom of the IoT architecture, Cisco itself plays in the middle via delivery of the core digital infrastructure (routing, switching, security), and wrapped around this are applications that will be generated through research from other chairs. Together, Huijbregts argued, these create “all the pieces of the puzzle needed to allow Cisco to act as a valuable player in the digitization story for Canada.”

In meeting this ambitious national aspiration, an overarching goal – for Ibnkahla and for Cisco Canada – is the commercialization of research efforts that may be underway. And a critical requirement in the commercialization of IoT innovation is collaboration between academic researchers, Cisco experts and partners, and end user customers, which the company is working to ensure through creation of a technology platform and a small team dedicated to managing, coordinating and facilitating research relationships. Focus on sensors is another important factor in building workable IoT solutions: according to a survey of 402 Canadian businesses conducted by InsightaaS/Techaisle Research this December, the high cost of sensors is the primary barrier to adoption of IoT solutions. If sensors represent an adoption hurdle, Cisco also sees this field as an emerging prospect area. “That’s why we looked at IoT and sensors,” Huijbregts observed. “We think that between the academic institutions and the startups that we have seen, there is a great opportunity for Canada to lead in the sensing space. I think that at this point, whatever we put our minds to in Canada, whatever we decide as a country to drive, we can own. It’s still early days, but the train just left the station and Canada is half in, half out. We want to push it all in so we can move fast.”