Attila Vago

Writer of codes, blogs and things that live on the web. Loves craft beer!

Tips for Addressing Scalability Issues on IoT Network Architecture

I think we all remember those days when IoT was merely an idea and many were talking about it as “in the future” — a future we often assume, is far far away, decades at least. Few thought that the future of IoT was just around the corner.

Now, “The Internet of Things” while coined as a term and officially recognised by the EU and much of the World in 2008 is not necessarily technologically new. It is infinitely more popular than it was in 1926 when Nikola Tesla said

“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole […] and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

or even back in 1998 when Mark Weiser pointed out the now obvious:

“Ubiquitous computing is roughly the opposite of virtual reality […] Where virtual reality puts people inside a computer-generated world, ubiquitous computing forces the computer to live out here in the world with people.”

But it’s Cisco that hit the nail on the head and clarified why the Internet of Things is what we know of it being today: scale. In between 2008 and 2009 the number of devices connected to the internet surpassed the number of humans connected to it. And hence the acronym IoT was born.

Scalability is an intrinsic part of IoT

It has to be for it to survive and make financial sense. Let’s illustrate with a simple example of a smart home — a one bedroom apartment for instance.

You have five zones to deal with: hallway, bathroom, bedroom, living-room, kitchen. That means at least 5 smart lights. If we look at the Hue system that uses a bridge to interconnect everything, while the hub itself allows for up to 50 lights, it only allows for 12 other accessories like motion sensors and dimmer switches. You’ll want one dimmer / zone and probably a motion sensor in the hallway and the kitchen. That’s 7 accessories, a little over 50% of the hub’s capacity. Have a three bed apartment, with a long hallway, and you’ll need another 3 dimmers. Three-beds traditionally have a second bathroom at least, so add another dimmer, and if you’re the lazy type a motion sensor, and you’ve hit the limit of 12.

And suddenly scalability matters. A lot. Because if this scenario would be translated to a three-bed country house, where you have to deal with an attic, front-door, back-door motion-sensors and lights, this setup would fail and for no other reason than limited scalability.

From micro to macro

The good news when setting up a connected home is that no one has to really think much about the underlying technologies, hardware, security and communication protocols all of these devices use, but once we start looking at IoT at a macro scale, the story changes quite a bit, and scalability becomes more than a “can’t add another dimmer switch without a second hub” type of issue. There are a few major key points where things can fail and cripple IoT: security, hardware life-span, architecture, quality. There’s plenty more, but these tend to be the pillars of current and near future IoT.

Security — above all

There’s no joking around with security, be that on a micro or macro level, it must be top-notch. Most IoT devices are very low capacity devices, unable to run anti-malware software as data enters, processes and exists the device and they don’t have the space required to store the ever-expanding databases of malware definitions. IoT ecosystems need centralised, cloud-based solutions which would provide users with an intuitive interface to control devices and protect them against malware.

Using the cloud with a smart repository of known viruses and threats that is constantly being updated with new information and feedback, according to Mika Majapuro, director of product management at F-Secure, ‘these servers are able to carry out advanced tasks such as behavioural analysis and machine learning to detect, categorise and block new threats.” This is the kind of functionality that is beyond the power of individual IoT devices.

Think 10 steps ahead of yourself

Legacy technologies are still being used in more than half of the world’s internet connections, and unless the companies still utilising this technology are prepared for the network’s impending sunset, they will likely find themselves with millions of useless devices on their hands in the not-so-distant future.

When deploying an IoT system, consider the potential longevity of the network technology and compare it to the devices’ expected life spans. Make sure your plans incorporate long-term support for devices based on technology projections.

Be a real architect for once

Your system should be able to easily expand as more devices are added. Nearly 75 per cent of businesses have upgraded their networks over the past three years, but 41 per cent say it takes a month or longer to make these changes.

You can deploy a robust IoT network for any company’s smart application, and a short time later, when the company tells you it wants to offer additional services on its network, you can gradually add the required devices without requiring additional infrastructure or downtime. The main things to look out for is the session lengths which will always be different and very device specific, as it also is with power and storage capacity.

Don’t be Scrooge

Dead flies are unsightly, and so is dead hardware, except that every piece of out of action hardware puts a heavier strain on the still functioning ones. The bigger the strain, the higher the chance of the rest of your hardware failing and soon what you have on your hands looks more like a graveyard than an IoT network.

Make sure the devices on the network can operate for many years without needing service. With maintenance making up about 15% to 25% of annual enterprise IT costs, investing in quality upfront will result in the lowest operational cost for the device as well as the network in the long term.

The buzzword status of IoT continues to increase, and so does its role in businesses. All companies need to ensure their IoT systems are poised to keep up with the fast-paced evolution therefore investing in quality hardware is the financially responsible option.

Attila Vago — writer of codes, blogs and things that live on the web. Programming polyglot, pragmatic doer, member of the “taking care of business” crowd, with a no nonsense attitude. An easily inspired inspirational individual with a strong predilection towards most things nerdy, good, carnivorous food, and Lego. Uses a Mac. Runs at 6 a.m.

HackerNoon and Quora author.

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