IoT, meet cloud

Why your things need the cloud

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Every few years there is a new “next big thing” in the fast-changing computing industry. Sometimes these “next big things” have proven to be fads or simply repackaged versions of what has come before. But sometimes the latest craze is worth paying attention to because it signals a more significant shift to new capabilities and applications that will have a more profound impact on our lives.

The internet of things (IoT) is today’s “next big thing” – certainly if column inches in the media are anything to go by. But let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean yesterday’s “next big things,” like the cloud, are going away. Cloud is the vital infrastructure for a host of applications. It is tough to imagine our current lives without cloud computing, and the cloud is the technology infrastructure (along with electricity itself) that literally keeps the world working, communicating and learning – and therefore, the IoT needs the cloud to reach its full potential.

By themselves, connected devices could be an administrative and maintenance nightmare. With millions or billions of such objects on the Internet, many of them very small and low-end, it’s largely impractical to design systems around a point-to-point architecture. If a smart object needs to interact with half a dozen different services, and a service needs to interact with thousands or millions of devices, it’s hard to imagine them all contacting each other directly with any great success. It’s particularly daunting to imagine how each device will be administered and updated. If we want to allow each device to have a single “home base” server, and if we want to minimize the permanent state and data maintained on each device, the cloud is the obvious point of convergence.

The natural way to connect devices, or things, and services, is via the cloud. Each device can have a single cloud-based service to which it delivers its data, and from which it takes its configuration information. Then, an arbitrary number of services can interact with that same cloud service to access the data provided by the device. By minimizing the complexity of the devices, we not only make each easier to administer, we also make it easier for everyone to build more services, of increasing complexity and value. These services make use of the information in the connected network via the cloud. The part of a smart object that interacts with the cloud can be made extremely generic, and therefore relatively easy and inexpensive to manage.

If we’re really moving toward a world with billions of intelligent, internet-connected smart objects, it’s absolutely vital that we make each as self-sufficient as possible. That means keeping configuration to a minimum and moving complexity to the cloud. This has been one of the secondary benefits of the cloud for office technology, but will be a primary benefit for the IoT. Connected objects or things don’t need to know much more about the internet than how to upload and download data and configuration information. It’s hard to see a rationale for doing that with more than one service.

The bottom line is that services that make use of the IoT are likely to be almost entirely cloud-based, making it hard for each service to utilize applications and data not already in the cloud. With this in mind, step one is to make sure that all your important data and services are available from the cloud, which will save you time and money, while better positioning you for the IoT of tomorrow.

For once, the best path is the path of least resistance. Stragglers still resisting cloud computing must move fast if they don’t want to find themselves two full generations of technology behind.

Nathaniel Borenstein is chief scientist for Mimecast and the co-creator of the MIME standard.  He has been an internet researcher, activist, author, standards maker, and entrepreneur since 1980, and remains guardedly optimistic that the internet does more good than harm.

4 Responses to “Why your things need the cloud”

  1. Nathaniel Borenstein

    Perhaps I should have mentioned security, but my topic was IT management. I probably should have included a pointer to one of my many public comments on cloud security, such as

    My basic belief is that for most businesses, the cloud is more secure than localized or “on site” IT because there’s almost always a lack of IT talent at the localized sites. I think that will only be more true in the IoT, where local IT talent isn’t lacking, it’s nonexistant.

  2. JenniferDawn

    This is the dumbest article I’ve read in a long time…any mention of the word ‘security’ in the article?
    Cloud-based IoT is good for criminals, but not anyone else.

  3. markjnorton

    While I agree with many of your points, I ultimately don’t agree with the basic premise of the article: that managing a collection of IoT devices is best done in the cloud. Yes it is a complex problem, one I understand as a software developer myself. However, what’s the difference between running my IoT management on a computer I own, vs. running it on the cloud? From a technical perspective, the answer is very little.

    Like most things, pushing device management into the cloud vs. having it at home is a trade off. Using the cloud is likely cheaper, though if I’m charged a monthly fee, it will NOT be cheaper over the long term. Pushing into the cloud raise the question of “Who owns my data?” Security also a question that must be considered and the track record of central servers and cloud providers isn’t all that great so far. Do you think a hacker would be more interested in breaking into my home computer, or going after the whole body of Nest data managed by Google?

    Ultimately, this is a choice the market will make for itself. Cynically, I think that vendors will make the cloud solution be the easiest, even if ultimately more expensive. That said, there are already start-ups being created that understand this problem better than Home Depot or Lowes that may lead to non-cloud solutions.

    In sum, the article could have been more balanced by providing some insight into the trade offs of cloud management of IoT devices.

    • George Kaplan

      I agree with both of you actually. As you said there are start-ups that do understand this issue. My personal belief is that the best solution is to go with a personal cloud device, that way you get all the availability and versatility of the cloud but with the safety of an on-premise solution. I started using a cloudlocker for this very reason and have been very happy with the results.

      I believe this is the cheapest and safest solution available now.