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Extending IoT sensor networks the right way

Posted: 02 Apr 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:IoT  sensor network  routing  Internet 

If some people find it really hard to wrap their heads around the concept of the Internet of Things (IoT), then they ought to try and understand how to route sensor networks for IoT for an even worse headache. In fact, according to consultant Larry Mittag, the routing challenges posed by these networks are not something to be taken lightly.

Network routing is one of those things that people tend to think about most when it is not working. Day in and day out the Internet successfully and efficiently routes bazillions of data packets from source to destination, but this only hits the news when "innocent mistakes" are made that do strange things like routing United Kingdom nuclear weapons information through the Ukraine. As we are designing our IoT networks it is worth thinking about how to route the traffic we are creating to avoid making it similarly newsworthy.

The simplest case is a group of nodes that all have direct links to each other, or at least all have direct links to a local master node. Many localised sensor networks organise this way, and the engineers that create them don't really worry much about routing. All data is transferred via a specific data link from Point A (the sensor) to Point B (the data collector). As long as the data collector can manage the interactions with all of the sensors life is simple and good.

The problems in this simple scenario start showing up when it becomes successful enough that people want to extend it. There are many examples of military networks that work quite well within their designed domain, but they struggle to relay their information outside of that domain because they simply weren't designed to do so. When the DoD pushed the Network-centric Warfare doctrine it realised how these local networks effectively stovepiped the information in them, which severely limited their vision of the technology and drove several expensive upgrade programmes.

Lest we feel too smug on the commercial side, the Internet did not exactly map out smoothly from the beginning either. Companies created internal networks over many years from a variety of technologies that made the Tower of Babel look good. I remember numerous meetings with executives that were actively hostile to the idea of standardisation on the scale of the Internet and could see no good coming out of it. Most of them are now either converted or safely retired, and the Internet genie is, for better or worse, entirely out of the bottle.

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