The Problem of Power

Listening to MIT’s Sanjay Sarma present a few weeks ago led me to think a bit about how we’re going to power all these connected devices in the Internet of Things. Mr. Sarma’s primary point is that RFID didn’t become ubiquitous until the lifetime cost of tags was reduced to pennies. Had the industry stuck with the conventional thinking around battery-powered devices with more powerful processors, it is unlikely RFID would have become as far-reaching.

The cost of batteries is dropping, and the lifespan we’re able to stretch out of them is increasing, but I don’t foresee lifetime costs (which combines the cost of the battery and the cost of replacing it when it fails) dropping to the under 10 cents range that Mr. Sarma was targeting. Even the best lithium battery technology can only be reliably stretched to a few years under constant load (even under low power) – and these batteries are still relatively expensive.

Some of the newer wide band communication protocols like 6LoWPAN and mesh networking like that proposed by Iotera can certainly help by reducing the energy requirements needed for long range communication to well below what is required by things like WIFI, Bluetooth, or Zigbee. But the reduced power needs don’t change the equation enough to meet Mr. Sarma’s goal for lifetime costs.

Energy Harvesting offers promise as a battery booster. Ambient energy can be harvested from heat, light, motion, pressure, chemical reaction, or other sources. These military boots that harvest energy from marching soldiers are a good example, but this technology is in its infancy and still relatively expensive, well outside of Mr. Sarma’s range.

But what Mr. Sarma proposed as a solution is actually quite interesting. He went back to his roots, and asked us to consider passive tags. Passive tags have no inherent power source. They are powered by a signal coming from a nearby “reader”. When the reader passes by, the tag is powered up and sends a response to the reader. The data transmitted from the tag can be anything it is able to sense.

At first blush, you may think (as I did), “didn’t we already discount Near Field Communication in IoT?”

Well on second thought, perhaps we really didn’t, and perhaps it does deserve some more consideration. If we are to get to 50 billion connected things in the next 5 years, we’ll need to expand beyond the consumer market. Businesses and governments will need to deploy lots of stuff, in all likelihood mostly sensors, and they’ll need to do it fast.

Some quick math, if you believe the 50 billion number, and then you assume 25% of those will be consumer devices (almost two for every human on earth), that leaves 38 billion for businesses. If you assume that 80% of those will be deployed by the Global 3000, that would mean each of these companies would be on average deploying almost 10 million connected things. At $10 each in five year cost, that would be $100 million. That seems to me to be on the high side (of course my assumptions are based on little science, but you get the point).

Passive tag technology reduces this number to $1,000,000 (assuming 10 cents per tag). And now it seems quite reasonable all of a sudden… in fact 50 billion devices now seems kind of low.

So could passive tags be the answer? Mr. Sarma raised the example of passive tags being used to detect termites, using one regular antenna on the tag and one antenna fashioned from wood. When only a single signal is detected from the sensor, you can deduce that the wooden antenna has been eaten and therefore you have a termite. Since the tags are so cheap, you can afford to put them everywhere, which enables you to average out the anomalies, and in the case of termites, pinpoint exactly where they are likely hiding out. Passive tag sensors now exist for everything from heat sensors, to chemical sensors, to moisture sensors.

I do believe that Mr. Sarma is on to something – at least for a specific class of sensor. It makes sense to me that if there is a cheaper sensor, that is what businesses will use. That said, there are many IoT scenarios that need much more than what passive sensors can provide, so there will likely be a mix of passive tags and more advanced applications with MCUs and batteries (and likely as much harvesting as is economically sensible).

So I take away two things from this: 1) Don’t discount the power of the passive tag. I believe it will play a role in IoT. 2) If passive tags do begin to dominate the sensor space, 50 billion is likely way too low of an estimate for the number of connected things.

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My IBM Impact 2014 Keynote Demo

Here is a video of our main stage Internet of Things demo at IBM Impact 2014. Thanks to Mychelle Mollot for her quick wit and strong presence.



Pondering security in an Internet of things era

arduino lockIt hasn’t taken long for the question of security to rise to the top the list of concerns about the Internet of Things. If you are going to open up remote control interfaces for the things that assist our lives, you have to assume people will be motivated to abuse them. As cities get smarter, everything from parking meters to traffic lights are being instrumented with the ability to remotely control them. Manufacturing floors and power transmission equipment are likewise being instrumented. The opportunities for theft or sabotage are hard to deny. What would happen, for example, if a denial of service attack were launched against a city’s traffic controls or energy supply?

Privacy is a different, but parallel concern. When you consider that a personal medical record is worth more money on the black market than a person’s credit card information, you begin to realize the threat. The amount of personal insight that could be gleaned if everything you did could be monitored would be frightening.

The problem is that the Internet of Things greatly expands the attack surface that must be secured. Organizations often have a hard enough time simply preventing attacks on traditional infrastructure. Add in potentially thousands of remote points of attack, many of which may not be feasible to physically protect, and now you have a much more complex security equation.

The truth is that it won’t be possible to keep the Internet of Things completely secure, so we have to design systems that assume that anything can be compromised. There must be a zero trust model at all points of the system. We’ve learned from protecting the edges of our enterprises that the firewall approach of simply controlling the port of entry is insufficient. And we need to be able to quickly recognize when a breach has occurred and stop it before it can cause more damage.

There are of course multiple elements to securing the Internet of things, but here are four elements to consider:

1) “Things” physical device security – in most scenarios the connected devices can be the weakest link in the security chain. Even a simple sensor that you may not instinctively worry about can turn into an attack point. Hackers can use these attack points to deduce private information (like listening in on a smart energy meter to deduce a home occupant is away), or even to infiltrate entire networks. Physical device security starts with making them tamper-resistant. For example, devices can be designed to become disabled (and data and key wiped) when their cases are opened. Software threats can be minimized with secure booting techniques that can sense when software on the devices has been altered. Network threats can be contained by employing strong key management between devices and their connection points.

Since the number of connected things will be extraordinarily high, on boarding and bootstrapping security into each one can be daunting. Many hardware manufacturers are building “call home” technology into their products to facilitate this, establishing a secure handshake and key exchange. Some manufacturers are even using unique hardware-based signatures to facilitate secure key generation and reduce spoofing risk.

2) Data security – data has both security and privacy concerns, so it deserves its own special focus. For many connected things, local on-device caching is required. Data should always be encrypted, preferably on the device prior to transport, and not decrypted until it reaches it’s destination. Transport layer encryption is common, but if data is cached on either side of the transport without being encrypted, then there are still risks. It is also usually a good idea to insert security policies that can inspect data to ensure that it’s structure and content is what should be expected. This discourages many potential threats, including injection and overflow attacks.

3) Network security – beyond securing the transmission of data, the Internet of things needs to be sensitive to the fact that it is exposing data and control interfaces over a network. These interfaces need to be protected by bi-lateral authentication, and detailed authorization policies that constrain what can be done at each side of the connection. Since individual devices cannot always be physically accessed for management, remote management is a must, enabling new software to be pushed to devices, but this also opens up connections that must be secured. In addition, policies needs to be defined at the data layer to ensure that injection attacks are foiled. Virus and attack signature recognition is equally important. Denial of service type attacks also need to be defensed, which can be facilitated by monitoring for unusual network activity and providing adequate buffering and balancing between the network and back end systems.

4) Detecting and isolating breaches – despite the best efforts of any security infrastructure, it is impossible to completely eliminate breaches. This is where most security implementations fail. The key is to constantly monitor the environment down to the physical devices to be able to identify breaches when they occur. This requires the ability to recognize what a breach looks like. For the Internet of things, attacks can come in many flavors, including spoofing, hijacking, injection, viral, sniffing, and denial of service. Adequate real-time monitoring for these types of attacks is critical to a good security practice.

Once a breach or attack is detected, rapid isolation is the next most important step. Ideally, breached devices can be taken out of commission, and remotely wiped. Breached servers can be cut off from sensitive back end systems and shut down. The key is to be able to detect problems as quickly as possible and then immediately quarantine them.

Outside of these four security considerations, let me add two more that are specifically related to privacy. Since so much of the Internet of things is built around consumer devices, the privacy risks are high. Consumers are increasingly back lashing against the surveillance economy inherent in many social networking tools, and the Internet of things threatens to take that to the next level.

Opt in – Most consumers have no idea what information is being collected about them, even by the social tools they use every day. But when the devices you use become connected, the opportunities for abuse get even worse. Now there are many great reasons for your car and appliances and personal health monitors to be connected, but unless you know that your data is being collected, where the data is going, and how it is being used, you are effectively being secretly monitored. The manufacturers of these connected things need to provide consumers with a choice. There can be benefits to being monitored, like discounted costs or advanced services, but consumers must be given the opportunity to opt in for those benefits, and understand that they are giving up some personal liberties in the process.

Data anonymization – when data is collected, much of the time, the goal is not to get specific personal information about an individual user, but rather to understand trends and anomalies that can help improve and optimize downstream experiences. Given that, organizations who employ the Internet of things should strive to remove any personally identifying information as they conduct their data analysis. This practice will reduce the number of privacy exposures, while still providing many of the benefits of the data.

The Internet of things requires a different approach to security and privacy. Already the headlines are rolling in about the issues, so it’s time to get serious about getting ahead of the problem.

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Introducing BlueMix


Today, IBM unveiled a new platform for building and operating Cloud-native and dynamic hybrid cloud applications. I’m very excited about this announcement, not only because much of my portfolio has been mixed into it, but also because it is the vehicle by which I believe IBM will transform its business.

At its core, BlueMix is a platform as a service offering based on Cloud Foundry. But it is much more than that. We’ve invested a huge amount of code back into the core of Cloud Foundry, but we’re also extending what is possible in CF with our breadth of middleware capabilities. For example, we’ve extended the CF gateway natively with some of our DataPower gateway capabilities, to improve security control and traffic optimization. We’ve also extended CF’s management layer with operational intelligence and advanced performance management and analytics. And these are just a couple of examples.

From a DevOps perspective, we’ve hardened and optimized BlueMix on SoftLayer infrastructure, to provide excellent performance and seamless elasticity and operations, along with high availability and autoscaling. We’ve also created elastic Java (based on WebSphere Liberty) and JavaScript (based on Node.js) runtimes that can be used to run applications.

But the most exciting part of BlueMix for me is the new development paradigm. We’ve built a new UI for easily deploying your choice of runtime and binding any of a catalog of services to it in seconds. Scale and size of deployment is handled by the infrastructure, and easily configured throughout the UI. A cloud-based IDE is built-in, allowing live Code editing and immediate response with instant DevOps cycles.

The services catalog is already very rich, with a variety of services that assist in building mobile applications (e.g. mobile push notifications), building service resiliency (e.g. caching based on Extreme Scale, elastic MQ based on WebSphere MQ), or extending application capabilities (e.g. Watson Discovery Advisor). There are also a variety of third party services in the catalog, including open source services and several from third-parties like Twilio and Pitney Bowes. I expect the catalog to keep expanding on a weekly basis.

What all this adds up to is the most productive development experience I have ever seen from IBM. As organizations shift to cloud-first and hybrid cloud systems development, I believe BlueMix will be a significant differentiator for them. With BlueMix, IBM is demonstrating a true understanding of the change that Cloud represents for middleware, not just porting traditional products to the Cloud or redirecting attention to SaaS properties. Now that it is in open beta, we’ll see how customers respond.

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Meet Your Makers


We are in the midst of a new era of innovation, and an entire generation of makers is emerging. These makers are enabled by direct access to a range of capabilities and building blocks that were previously only available to multi-million dollar corporations. They have unprecedented control over both the digital and physical world, access to unlimited computing capacity, and an entire Internet of data to exploit. These makers are reshaping not only the technology landscape, but also the practices and opportunities of traditional businesses. If you haven’t done so already, it is time to meet your makers.

Makers can instantly download free developer tools and advanced runtime environments to build new applications. They can spin up Cloud computing infrastructure in minutes to run these applications, accessing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of computing infrastructure without any up front costs. They can choose from thousands of open APIs to add key capabilities into their applications, incorporating the best data and the best functionality available in the market without outlaying a penny of capital expense. Perhaps most amazingly, makers don’t need to be particularly sophisticated to take advantage of all of this – this is a mass movement, not an exclusive one.

The maker generation has been empowered by the removal of three key barriers that have traditionally kept this type of innovation in the hands of large corporations:

  1. Economics
  2. Closed Systems
  3. Technological Complexity

Economic Barriers
The removal of economic barriers through the availability of Cloud computing has been a huge factor in the rise of the maker. Using Cloud services, developers have access to unlimited processing power, storage, and network infrastructure. They can also easily deploy applications across geographic boundaries, lowering the barriers to entering new markets. Pay-as-you-go models are standard, and elasticity is built-in, to allow makers to experiment at a very low cost, but easily scale to meet bursting demand when ideas catch on.

But the lowering of economic barriers has not been limited to Cloud. Universal mobile and Wi-Fi connectivity, with commoditizing cost structures, has empowered anything, anywhere to be connectable. As they dream up their designs, makers can assume connectivity with a relatively high degree of reliability.

And perhaps the biggest and most current disruption is in the economics of microelectronics. Computers that would have powered businesses thirty years ago can now be shrunken down to postage stamp sizes. Battery technologies have evolved to remarkable lifespans, and energy to charge batteries can be collected from a variety of sources, including body heat and movement. And yet, with all this advancement, makers can buy an LTE capable microprocessor on the open market for under $10.

Closed System Barriers
While many of the early computing companies built their businesses on closed systems, computer systems have gradually evolved toward openness, inspired by Internet technologies like TCP/IP and HTTP, and communications technologies like Wi-Fi and GSM. Open programming frameworks like Java, and data formats like XML and JSON have lowered the barriers to interoperability, enabling makers to build new systems capable of interacting with the old. Open lightweight protocols like Bluetooth LE and MQ-TT have provided ways to easily bridge between the digital and physical world.

The most recent wave of technology innovation over the past ten years has produced advancements in open software technology like Hadoop, columnar databases, and document stores, all of which provide the tools for makers to manage and analyze huge volumes of data. And even commercial software companies now routinely offer their products through free download for development use, providing makers with limitless options without having to settle for second-class capabilities.

Technological Complexity Barriers
In my view, the biggest barrier to fall has been the one that has kept information technology in the control of a relatively small population of elite experts. The consumerization of technology, and the resulting simplification of its design, has created a huge accelerator for innovation, and vastly expanded the population of potential makers. Even 10 years ago, programming was mostly limited to technological whiz kids with advanced EE degrees or natural propensities toward mathematics and science. The barriers on the hardware side were even steeper, often requiring deep understanding of hardware architectures and embedded systems.

Today, technology can be used and controlled with a much more basic set of skills. In the Cloud, Platform as a Service technologies simplify traditionally complex tasks like configuring high availability and synchronizing data across data centers. Javascript has emerged as a low barrier programming language that simplifies the transition from client to server to database, while naturally extending to mobile devices. Even hardware has joined this wave, with technologies like the $25 Raspberry Pi that offer affordable and extensible hardware foundations for makers to build upon. And with 3D printers, even physical objects and prototypes can be created at a fraction of the cost and complexity of the past.

Perhaps most importantly, the drive toward simple Web APIs has inspired a whole new wave of Internet accessible capabilities with easy HTTP-based interfaces that can be learned in minutes. The result of this is a plethora of tools at the maker’s fingertips. Makers can combine data and functions from thousands of developers across thousands of companies, wiring together new applications in hours to achieve what would have taken weeks or months only a decade ago.

The reason why this is important is because these makers are driving much of the innovation happening in the technology marketplace today. These makers are changing business models, cross-pollinating capabilities and data into new markets, and opening up new channels. These makers are a potential innovation engine for your own data and capabilities. These makers think in new ways, find new uses for existing assets, and find ways to monetize things that were never thought of as valuable. Your competitors are likely dipping their toes into this innovation pool already, not relying on only their traditional IT teams to discover and drive innovation.

So where are these makers? With these barriers removed, they are emerging everywhere. Many of them likely exist in your own organization. They are out there thinking of an idea, perhaps searching for data, expertise, or capabilities that your organization could offer them. These makers are the people who will disrupt your market or lead your industry’s next great opportunity. If they aren’t empowered by your point of view, they will find other means to achieve their goals, many of which may directly compete with your own.

I suggest you make an effort to reach out and meet your makers and empower them before the opportunity passes you by.


Connected vehicle commercial

New commercial on our Connected Vehicle project at Continental. Check it out: