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Creative Evolution For Smart Systems


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A Tyranny of Replication is Setting Certain Players Up For Failure…and How You Can Escape It

In times of radical change, crises of perception are often the cause of significant failures, particularly in large established companies.  Such failures result from the inability to see emergent discontinuities.  We believe this is the case with most large established suppliers of technology attempting to address the emerging Internet of Things opportunity.  Many players’ assumptions about future architecture for Smart Systems are being shaped by the past and are being extrapolated into the future in a linear fashion.  Most of the large established IT equipment, software and network players appear to be stuck in this tyranny of replication, with only a few finding a way out.

How should we view future architecture for the Internet of Things?

In our recently released Smart Systems Forecast Report, we’ve articulated a “smart systems” vision and road map that emphasizes several points, including:

•    The architecture required to inform an Internet of Things looks nothing like today’s kludge diagrams of smart devices connected to clouds; it will inevitably evolve to a radically different peer-to-peer architecture.
•    As the architecture evolves, the definitions of its most basic elements that everyone is so anxious to quantify today (servers, devices, routers, hubs, etc.) will change radically.
•    What most people who do not understand this evolution are missing is that you cannot accurately quantify the future state of the Internet of Things by merely counting today’s mess of architecture and systems elements.

What will the future Internet of Things and Smart Systems world look like?

Today the world of smart communicating devices is mostly organized in hierarchies with smart user interface devices at the top and the dumb devices (often analog or serial sensors and actuators) at the bottom.  Within this structure, there are typically various types of “middle box” supervisory devices forming a point of connectivity and control for the sensors and actuators as well as the infrastructure for the network. From our perspective, this description of today’s M2M, remote services and connected systems architectures looks very familiar and is largely organized much like client-server based computer systems..... no surprise given they were designed in the 1980's.

As the Internet of Things opportunity expands, the sensor and actuator devices will all become smart themselves and the connectivity between them (devices, for the most part, that have never been connected) will become more and more complex.  As the numbers of smart devices grow, the existing client-server hierarchy and the related “middle boxes” acting as hubs, controllers and interfaces will quickly start to blur.  In this future-state, the need for any kind of traditional client-server architecture will become superfluous. In a future Internet of Things, the days of hierarchical models are numbered.

Now, imagine a future smart systems world where sensors and devices that were once connected by twisted pair, current loops or were hardwired become networked with all devices integrated onto one IP-based network (wired or wireless).  In this new world, the “middle boxes” don’t need traditional input/output (I/O) hardware or interfaces.  They begin to look just like network computers running applications designed to interact with peer devices and carry out functions with their “herd” or “clusters” of smart sensors and devices – let’s call these new middle boxes, “aggregators”.
We can readily imagine an application environment where there may be several aggregators running applications which overlap sharing their sensors and actuators, some even “sharing” a whole herd – a smart building application, for example, where the processor in an occupancy sensor is used to turn the lights on, change the heating or cooling profile or alert security.  
In this evolving architecture, the network essentially flattens until the end-point devices are merely peers and a variety of applications reside on one or more network controllers which look for all intents and purposes like today’s cellular router/modems, industrial PCs or small “headless” high availability distributed servers.

contemporary In a smart systems application world designed to capture, log and analyze large volumes of data from sensors, the aggregators, such as we are describing here, will carry out the process of taking raw data and distilling it into information “locally.”  Local processing is required to reduce the otherwise untenable Internet traffic challenges that arise from connecting billions of devices. The notion that all these “things” and devices will produce streaming data that has to be processed in some cloud will simply not work.  It makes more sense structurally and economically to execute these interactions in a more distributed architecture near the sensors and actuators where the application-context prevails.
This is the move we’ve all been waiting for to a truly distributed architecture because today’s systems will not be able to scale and interact effectively where there are billions of nodes involved.  In this portrayal, the aggregators will become peers in a network along with the sensors, actuators and controllers whether or not they have GUIs (headed) or not (headless).  The aggregators will also become unified application platforms from which to provide services to devices and users where the applications run, where the data is turned into information, where storage takes place, and where the browsing of information ultimately takes place too - not in some server farm in a cloud data center.  Even the mobile handsets we admire so much today are but a tiny class of user interface and communications devices in an Internet of Things world where there will be 100 times more “things” than humans.

Is this a radical departure from today’s models and systems architecture?  We think so.

In this future Smart Systems arena, the architecture and relationship structures between and among smart devices will become more or less flat.  Hierarchy will disappear.  Peer-to-peer will become the “norm” for interactions (with its attendant benefits and pitfalls).  From our view the movement towards peer-to-peer, and the view that many people hold that this is somehow novel, is ironic given that the Internet was originally designed for peer-to-peer interactions.

This is a vast opportunity of untold scale.  If we hypothesize that there will be 2-5 “headed” user interface devices for every person on the planet - say 12-30 billion in the future.  Of these, if 4-5 billion will be portable and/or low power, there will likely be 30-40 billion controller/aggregator devices, potentially managing around 60-100 billion end-point sensor/actuator devices - a ratio of 20:1 or so…and that’s just the relatively near term. When you think there are only 1 billion PCs on the planet and 3 billion cell phones, this all starts to come into focus and in many ways, aggregators will be the next “PC”…but with 30x more of them.

Today we can only see the beginnings of this structurally: Industrial PC's, communications hubs and all manner of gateway-like boxes all morphing to aggregators with handsets and tablets morphing to universal user interface devices.  In this vision all we can hear in the today’s marketplace is the siren song of client-server and Cloud stories.

In our years of experience, we have all too often seen the unfortunate scenarios that managers create when uncertainty and complexity force them to rely on selective attention.  Unfortunately, when this happens, selective attention naturally gravitates toward what’s readily available: past experience and uncertain assumptions.  Today’s IT and telco infrastructure players are doing just this.  By ignoring important trends simply because it’s difficult to perceive an alternative future, these managers are certainly leaving the door open for competition that will lead to their eventual obsolescence… which will make for a very interesting world to live in…

Glen Allmendinger
President and Founder, Harbor Research



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