Full Steam Ahead For IoT

Despite concerns about security, connectivity and power, the semiconductor industry is rushing ahead.


Criticism is rampant about the Internet of Things being partially baked, ill-defined, or just a rehash of old ideas that never got off the drawing board. While there is some basis for that criticism, it really doesn’t seem to matter. The semiconductor industry is in full pursuit of what many perceive to be the largest opportunity since the invention of the PC, the public rollout of the Internet, and the introduction of the mobile phone. In fact, what started as a trickle has turned into something that more closely resembles Niagara Falls.

This is particularly true for the so-called Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), where smart sensors on a factory floor already are saving money and predicting potential problems, such as assembly line shutdowns, well ahead of those events. But there also is an increasing amount of activity in connecting everything from automobiles to medical devices to home electronics as companies race to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

“The Internet of Things is about coordinated connected objects to which we’re delegating those tasks that we believe should ‘just happen,'” said Philip Lewer, marketing director for IoT and smart home at NXP. “The use cases are numerous — moisture detectors automatically shutting off the water when a leak is detected, automatic alarm clock setting based on the time and location of your first meeting of the day, intelligent thermostat control based on your proximity. The list goes on and on. For this to be effective, it’s going to come down to compelling use cases, good user experience and a robust platform for the connected objects. In essence, ‘Things’ need to be easy to commission, easy to use, need to interoperate and be secure.”

The reality, though, is that connected things don’t always interoperate well, particularly in rapidly changing and largely unregulated markets such as consumer electronics, which is why millions of homes have baskets of remote controls. There are so many different communications standards and protocols that it’s impossible to support them all and still have a low-cost, low-power device. In automotive, mil/aero and medical, standards are much more stringently managed and limited because at least portions of these devices are considered critical systems. Consumer electronics is a different story.

“There are a lot more standards out there than are necessary, and it’s creating confusion,” said Lewer. “It’s less about standards and really about compelling use cases for the end user. You can make a heterogeneous environment work today.”

That works up to a point. But when there are too many standards, it’s difficult to support them all.

“One of the major challenges in IoT is which standards to support,” said Tyler Smith, marketing manager for Microchip’s Wireless Products Division. “If you support all the standards in a single platform it’s an architectural challenge and an engineering challenge. You have to pick and choose. The IoT is about monitoring, controlling and accessing information, and our challenge is how to do it effectively, and cost effectively.”

Assessing the security risk
There are a number of other challenges, as well. None of them is dampening enthusiasm for the IoT yet, but left unaddressed they could. Security ranks at the very top of that list, and it’s made worse by the numerous competing communication standards and the vast amount of complexity that the IoT brings.

“Historically, security has not held back the adoption of technology,” said Paul Kocher, president and chief scientist for the Cryptography Research division of Rambus. “Lots of vendors are building things and connecting them together in ways that are more complex than PCs today. Some of them will have terrible security. Even if half of the products are free of security bugs, which is probably wildly optimistic, the other 50% will have problems. And with the IoT, you have a wide diversity of devices. While each provides some benefit, it doesn’t matter if one if secure and the ones connected to it are not.”

Kocher said the first segment that will really feel the pain is information technology—the data centers or cloud services provicers. When PCs were first introduced, IT departments complained these devices created a security threat because they could be used to steal data and inject viruses. The problem was exacerbated by the addition of smart phones, tablets, USB drives, and complex network infrastructures. But the IoT adds even more complexity with many more devices that can connect to the network.

“Like most problems, this will start small and get worse,” he predicts. “Historically, corporate networks were architected to keep bad people out. But once they’re inside, there are lots of devices that can be used to tap into the network, such as an IoT-connected camera. The IoT brings more benefits than problems, but even the benefits present risks.”

He’s clearly not alone in worrying about security threats. A constant barrage of information about security breaches at banks, retailers and many other types of businesses has left consumers and companies wary of what’s next.

“As IoT devices bring more connections to the Internet, the need for security grows much greater,” said Frankwell Lin, president of Andes Technology. “We in the industry have to make the devices secure from intrusion and also make the network more secure from devices being used maliciously once on the Net.”

Other concerns
Power is another issue that could slow adoption of IoT devices in some markets—sometimes with widely different outcomes even the same market. For a car with an internal combustion engine, saving energy isn’t nearly as important as in an electric car where all the energy is stored in a battery and drawn out as needed. And in the consumer market, a tablet battery is going to last far longer than a battery in a wearable device, even if it has the best power management features.

“The industry has to work to make sure that IoT does not cause an increase in power consumption, even for tethered products,” said Lin. “Lower-power MCUs are certainly a key requirement. Making MCUs and their peripherals more power-efficient in delivering their performance can have a significant effect on new devices.”

Power remains a big issue across a wide swath of markets, particularly when a battery needs to last for years because a sensor may be difficult to replace. “It will never be good enough and that continues to drive innovation in this area,” said NXP’s Lewer. “Smart home end users need access to their power consumption data in order to make informed decisions which would allow them to reduce energy costs. Connected smart plugs with metrology capability and low power RF connectivity such as Zigbee are one way to do this.”

Also of concern is exactly what will drive future sales. While there are plenty of devices seeking to win a piece of the IoT market, where tens of billions of devices are expected to be used, there are no clear winners as there have been in markets such as mobile phones or personal computers.

“It’s more an adoption curve question than whether we’ve found the killer apps,” said Bernard Murphy, chief technology officer at Atrenta. “It appears this market will take off faster in the industrial space than in other markets. In the wearable market, so far we don’t have a distinctive device. The medical market is interesting, but outside of consumer devices there is no backing from the medical community, and getting anything certified there will be a huge hill to climb. Industrial is showing real promise, though, and so is military, where R&D is picking up again.”

Sudhir Sharma, high-tech industry director at Ansys, groups IoT issues into four broad categories—reliability, compliance, markets and performance. Reliability includes electrical, thermal and structural issues, which have to be balanced with cost, time to market and where a device will be used. Compliance is focused on standards, security and government regulations. Markets include knowing what consumers want, what they will pay, and what the necessary performance will be. And performance includes such factors as energy efficiency, speed, miniaturization and connectivity.

“There’s another requirement, as well, which is usability,” said Sharma. “If you look at where we are on the Geoffrey Moore chasm, we are in the early adopter stage. Early adopters are willing to play with stuff to make sure it works, but for the tornado to hit it really has to be easy for everyone to use.”

Good news for tools
When it comes to the IoT, as with any other boom in high-tech, comparisons to the 1849 gold rush in California are rampant because the real wealth was accumulated by providers of mining equipment such as shovels, pick-axes and dungarees. The IoT space requires a much more expensive and sophisticated set of tools that includes everything from software to hardware tools to system modeling and mechanical simulation. Just as the IoT has connected multiple markets together, it has connected together multiple tools flows.

“IoT proliferation is helped by the availability of high-quality and low cost development tools, especially compilers and debuggers,” said Andes’ Lin, who says open platforms will be essential in the IoT world for cost and time-to-market reasons.

That’s just one piece of the market, too, which stretches from EDA companies to packaging and services houses to IP vendors with pre-developed subsystems to companies developing new architectures and materials that can be used at new and established process nodes. And as the market for IoT devices begins taking shape over the next couple of years, all of these players will have the chance to sell their wares to startups and established companies in markets they have never ventured into before. Just as the IoT fuses together things on networks, it can fuse together ecosystems. What remains to be seen is exactly who will benefit from these shifts and why, but that’s the subject of another story.

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