The Internet of Things (IoT) is on the fast track, with IHS Markit recently forecasting that the number of connected IOT devices this year will reach 20 billion. In its report, IoT Trend Watch 2017, however, the research firm also points to technology fragmentation in the area, which will require efforts including further alignment of industrial IoT standards groups and industry organizations to coordinate and consolidate efforts. IoT fragmentation is indeed an issue and one that is an increasing focus of attention for many who want to see the industry reach its potential. A move towards better Linked Data standards can help.
In February, for example, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the global standards organization for the Web, launched a new Working Group to develop initial standards for the Web of Things, with the aim of countering the IoT fragmentation; reducing the costs of development; lessening the risks to both investors and customers; and, encouraging exponential growth in the market for Internet of Things devices and services. The Working Group is an evolution of the Interest Group that’s been around for a couple of years now, and aims to collaborate with other IoT alliances and standards development organizations including the IETF, Open Connectivity Foundation, oneM2M, OPC Foundation, Industrial Internet Consortium and Platform Industries 4.0.
The wide range of platforms, standards, and proprietary plays surrounding the IoT creates challenges and complications to services innovation. The Web of Things Working Group wants to contribute to overcoming those barriers by creating a web of services based on Linked Data, says Dave Raggett, W3C champion for the Web of Things. “There is a lot of fragmentation that’s just holding people back,” he says. “We want to make it easier for people to create and combine services,” with open standards and an abstraction layer that will enable developers to reach out and connect across networks and technologies without having to deal with multiple different protocols and other complexities.
For example, multiple IoT systems that are hard to integrate together may exist within a single company, creating additional pressure in a highly competitive business world because of the drain that imposes on agility and flexibility. “They need better integration from the vertical factory floor to the boardroom and across the supply chain and the value change within a company,” he says. Bringing a semantic interoperability abstraction layer into the picture “will make it easier to connect IoT systems and make a huge impact,” Raggett says.
The Linked Data Connection
The proposition of the W3C Web of Things Working Group is to express or describe things in the IoT in terms of actions, properties, events and metadata, and independent of their underlying IT platforms. This work, Raggett says, “can build upon the W3C’s extensive experience of Linked Data, the lingua franca for the comparison of data and metadata in different formats and data models.”
An IoT object can be modeled for applications in terms of how it interacts with things and in the context of semantic concepts of what it means to be a certain thing to support interoperability across IoT services chains.
This makes it possible to get around the obstacles that occur when different IoT systems represent data in different ways, which makes them incompatible and their data inaccessible across platforms even if they use the same protocols. “You need to know that things share the same meaning if you want them to link together, and we can use Linked Data to support that,” he says.
Raggett stresses that the Working Group is focused on trying to complement the work that different organizations are doing as it relates to developing IoT platforms. “We want to add value to these platforms to make it easier to add services and combine information from them with other platforms,” by developing cross-domain Linked Data vocabularies, serialization formats, and APIs, he explains. “We are collaborating with them in trying to build a common understanding and vision of how this abstraction layer can add value to the platforms they define.”
Exposing things to applications as objects based upon machine interpretable descriptions of their properties, actions, events and metadata can impact all IoT markets. In the smart home space, for example, having a common way to describe things opens the door to innovative small companies coming up with services that can communicate with existing services and sensors to deliver new and significant capabilities, rather than just incrementally increasing convenience. An opportunity is there to use various connected sensors and learning objects to communicate with each other and make big leaps in areas like helping elderly people age in place or physically challenged individuals live independently in their smart homes. If these objects “describe things in totally different ways, then these is no communication and no market,” he says.
The WoT Connection
In February the Web of Things Interest Group published a current practices draft document here providing an overview for implementers of the W3C WoT building blocks. “This is a concrete location that people can look at [with a] range of use cases,” he says. Use cases include, for example, one company’s application being used to operate an IoT device in another company’s location on another side of the world. “They are technical proofs of concept that you can use abstraction layers across companies and across continents,” Raggett says.
The Working Group is and will continue to exploit lessons learned within the existing W3C Web of Things Interest Group, which holds regular plugfests for interoperability demonstrations. The companies that have take advantage of this include: Siemens, Panasonic, Fujitsu, Intel, LemonBeat/RWE, Samsung Smart Things, Fraunhofer FOKUS, KDDI, ETRI, ACCESS, Institut Telecom, NTT Communications, EVRYTHNG, and Orange.
At the first meeting of the Working Group in Santa Clara last month a roadmap was set that aims to produce initial standards within two years to ultimately help combat IoT fragmentation. “It’s essentially about a vocabulary for describing objects in terms of properties, actions, and events and about some common APIs to reduce barriers and learning curves for developers,” he says.
He notes that for a lot of developer’s semantic technologies are still a relatively new idea, and the hope is to be able to make their benefits much clearer. “We want to show use cases and examples that highlight how semantic descriptions can make it easier to get things to market,” he says. Along with that, the hope is also to convey the message that they can use formats they are familiar with, like JSON for greater accessibility to the semantic ecosystem.
Security, along with privacy and resiliency, also will be an important aspect of the roadmap. No one wants to see vulnerabilities that allow, for example, for IoT-enabled cars to be hacked into and stopped in the middle of the freeway. “W3C is seeking to collaborate with other organizations to understand how they approach security themselves,” he says. “That, and building a common vision that functions end-to-end across different platforms, are all areas for organizations and companies to collaborate and build a solid approach.”
There’s no denying there are challenges to IoT fragmentation, given how competitive pressures for short-term results for IoT endeavors work against needs of standards to expand the market. But, says Raggett,
“If we can introduce certain standards in the area, we can reduce the risk to developers, investors and customers alike. That in turn should open things up from there being lots of small IoT markets to a larger IoT market because there won’t be a need to target one particular IT platform. Having a larger market increases the Web of Things market stability – it feeds on itself to create this virtuous circle of exponential expansion.”
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