The Growing Internet of Things

Curtis Franklin Jr., Executive Editor | 2/8/2013 | 23 comments

Curtis Franklin Jr.
Smaller, more capable embedded controllers are making simple products smarter. What are you doing with all that intelligence?

I've been covering the embedded control industry for a long time, and engineers were weighing the relative advantages of dedicated embedded controllers versus small general-purpose CPUs in control applications back in the 1980s. Today, though, small workstation and server packaging like the Raspberry Pi make it physically and economically possible to put very capable computers in very small and simple products. Let's take a moment to think about why you might (or might not) put something like the Raspberry Pi in a product when you're also considering a more traditional embedded controller.

First, let's look at why the embedded controller is still appropriate for many applications. Embedded controllers can still be somewhat smaller and less expensive than more capable general computers. It's also true that programming embedded controllers tends to be simpler, since there is far less OS overhead to deal with in the simpler units.

It's also true that embedded controllers tend to have easier-to-access functionality for dealing with analog-to-digital conversion and interrupt handling. If you're coming from the world of general purpose programming, there's one more thing to consider; timing is often far easier on embedded controllers than general purpose computers, because you don't have to worry about stray processes coming in and stealing processor cycles -- embedded controllers are, as a group, blessedly simple devices to design around.

So with all the simplicity and straight-forward programming to recommend embedded controllers, why would you go to the trouble of putting a "real" computer inside a product? For a growing number of designers, the answer involves adding the product containing the computer to the rapidly expanding Internet of Things.

We've all heard customers provide feedback that has the form, "I'd love to know that the product is working the way it's supposed to work." Traditionally, designers provide that knowledge by way of indicator lights, status displays, or simple text-display panels providing simple messages. All these methods are fine -- if the user happens to be standing next to the device. Given that we're all living more mobile lives these days, extending the blinky lights and text displays from the living room wall to the coffee shop across the country is a valuable service. That's where the Internet of Things comes in.

Of course, sticking a web server into a microwave oven seems a bit extreme to many people, but we've begun a process that will end in Internet-carried status updates and control mechanisms considered the norm rather than a high-geek extra. The question isn't going to be whether that micro-web server is in the product, but how it's implemented.

The fact is, there are embedded controller-based web server solutions becoming more available. How you choose to implement the web server will depend on cost and basic design issues -- in other words, traditional design engineering considerations. As an OEM designer, your customers will give you basic instructions -- how are you going to meeting the requirements? Do you have a favorite solution today? I'd love to hear about it -- and about what you think of the Internet of Things that's growing by leaps and bounds.

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tinym   The Growing Internet of Things   2/16/2013 2:14:16 PM
Re: You mean
@Curt Raspberry Pi is a fascinating little device. I hope to working on some projects myself though I haven't any idea what I'll do -- at least not yet.
CMTucker   The Growing Internet of Things   2/15/2013 9:57:47 AM
Re: You mean
@henrisha or like the old movie "Maximum Overdrive" from the Stephen King short story "Trucks."
Henrisha   The Growing Internet of Things   2/13/2013 11:59:29 AM
Re: You mean
It definitely sounds like it. Or something from a movie set in the future.
CurtisFranklin   The Growing Internet of Things   2/12/2013 11:12:21 PM
Re: You mean
@Rich, I understand the time constraints -- there's far more I'd like to learn than I have time to study! I'm working on Arduino programming now, and I'm looking forward to Raspberry Pi development in the future.

And I agree with the medical applications. Between these little controllers and the systems being built around smart phones, we're entering a time when it will be possible to keep tabs on health indicators with a precision and consistency we've never seen in a home setting. I'm truly excited about what this can mean for countless individuals.
CurtisFranklin   The Growing Internet of Things   2/12/2013 10:59:24 PM
Re: You mean
@Technocrat, security is an issue but the owner of any of these devices can take a huge step by doing what too many wireless router owners refuse to do: Set their own user name and password. Frankly, if a user can't be bothered to change those two parameters, my sympathy level for any intrusion goes way down.

Like so much in the electronic world, there's at least a small cost associated with progress, and purchasers should be both aware of the cost and willing to bear it before moving forward with the installation. Me? I think it's a great idea!
tinym   The Growing Internet of Things   2/12/2013 10:40:41 PM
Re: You mean
@Rich was that in an episode of Futurama?
Technocrat   The Growing Internet of Things   2/11/2013 11:27:34 PM
Re: You mean
@Curtis    As you can probably tell,  I own very little that has a tcp/ip  based connection, the usual devices and computer of course, but I have heard from my more advant garde friends that there are many things in the household that can be regulated via the internet.   I really never made the connection that this is part and parcel of the "Internet of things" but that is only the tip of the ice berg as you so kindly point out.

You bring up a major hurdle to the massive use of this technique - security.  It is always there and will always be there.  We have trouble securing the devices and computers we have now, and now we have appliances and control systems to add to this mix. 

I know I am not looking forward to thinking about security for the devices and appliances I use yet as with any upgrade, I will probably have too.
CurtisFranklin   The Growing Internet of Things   2/11/2013 11:20:13 PM
Re: You mean
@Sara, you're an excellent editor. I'm sure that history will record that your housekeeping was on the same level as Martha Stewart's. Just like mine.
CurtisFranklin   The Growing Internet of Things   2/11/2013 11:18:22 PM
Re: You mean
@Rich, that sort of application isn't all that difficult. A simple Arduino with a relay shield and either timer code or a routine to interpret input from a photoresistor should do the trick. Now, it would be interesting to interface that Arduino with a Raspberry Pi (and other Arduino subsystems) to create a more intelligent home temperature control system involving insulated shades, whole-house fans, clerestory windows and the HVAC unit.

Let all of those talk to one another, have another system reporting on whole-house energy use, and then put the results on a secure web site (along with over-ride controls so you could, for example, cool down the house before arriving for dinner with your friends) and you have the sort of intelligent, communicating "Internet of Things" dream that many people are discussing.
CurtisFranklin   The Growing Internet of Things   2/11/2013 10:59:36 PM
Re: You mean
@Technocrat, we've been building embedded control systems (especially in manufacturing, security and building control) that communicate with one another for years. What has changed is the extent to which all of them are using TCP/IP and  HTTP as the transport protocols, and the Internet as a transport mechanism.

The benefit is that it becomes much easier to have different devices talk to one another with very little customization when they're all using common standards. The danger is one of security -- just because a device doesn't have a monitor and keyboard doesn't mean that it can't be compromised, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. Things are changing and we need to be careful to think through all the ramifications of those changes as we move along the technology adoption curve.
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