Many people are talking about the Internet of Things (IoT) as if it were the greatest thing to ever happen to the planet, but what is it exactly? The term was first used in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, a director at the Auto-ID Center at MIT. He was describing how the world of computers up until that time had needed human beings to input data. But, with the development of connected devices, data could be collected without human intervention allowing computers to know “everything there was to know about things.”

Providing “things” with a unique identifier and the ability to transmit data is at the heart of the IoT. A “thing” could be any object that can be assigned an IP address and can be connected to the Internet, whether by using cabling or wireless technologies. One of the first examples was near the beginning of the Internet in the early 1980s when programmers at the Carnegie Melon University connected a vending machine so that they could monitor how many cans of Coke were available.

Recent developments have increased the potential of the IoT including the new Internet protocol IPv6. This features an extremely large address space that could potentially allow every single thing on the Earth down to the atomic level to have a unique ID. Other important factors are the expansion of access to broadband Internet and the decreased cost in getting connected. Also, as more and more devices are being connected, often referred to as becoming smart, their costs, as well as that of the associated technologies, are dropping.

Probably the most familiar smart device is the smart phone that has enabled huge numbers of people to access the Internet from anywhere they happen to be. They can now connect through high-speed wireless broadband connections or Wi-Fi if it is available. Cars too, are rapidly becoming smarter. For example they can know their service schedule, coordinate with the driver’s calendar and arrange an appointment at the dealership as well as plan the best route to get there and avoid heavy traffic.

Entire homes have become smart. Starting with security monitoring, home automation has now evolved into control of thermostats and the ability to lock and unlock doors. Now there are smart appliances including fridges that can detect when supplies are getting low and order groceries. Alarm clocks could alert coffee makers to have that cup of brew ready in the morning. Other features of smart homes include smart TVs that can stream Internet content and send out ratings and viewing data.

The Internet of Things expands far beyond the home. Machine to machine (M2M) communication has become widespread in manufacturing for monitoring inventory, optimizing labor, robotics and a host of other uses. There are a number of different technologies that make this work but usually it includes adding a sensor, transmitter and a receiver to devices. The sensor collects data which is transmitted to a central server. Once the data has been interpreted then commands can be sent to the machine to control its actions.

The expansion doesn’t stop there. We’re now talking about smart cities where everything is interconnected from traffic lights to smart electricity meters. These meters can communicate with the smart grid, a power grid that can allow two-way communications so that utilities can monitor their customers’ electricity use as well as provide fault detection and system maintenance.

The worrying part about all this connectivity is the potential for security breaches. Apart from firewalls and antivirus software the actual physical network needs to be protected. Cabling, especially fiber that uses light to transmit data has advantages over wireless technologies that can be vulnerable to interception. Having a secure Internet connection using lockable enclosures throughout the network is essential.