Friday 15 April 2016

Internet of Things and The Cloud

The Internet of Things (IoT) got some bad press as a concept a couple of weeks back, as a result of the plug being pulled on Revolv's Nest hub, e.g. Wired, BBC, The Guardian. And indeed, when I buy a "thing" I expect it to just work - and for some time. Thermostats, light switches, smoke alarms and kitchen-appliances are all things that I expect to leave working when I move house in some years; lightbulbs less so, but I don't expect all of them to break at once because the light fitting or the wires have become obsolete. And that is the issue here: the controllers still work just fine - but the cloud service that they require to work is being switched off.

The added cost of being an early adopter probably comes with an expectation that the product may date faster than if I wait, or require more frequent fixes and upgrades - as is the case if you compare my FitBit to my old analogue watch. In any case, this story raises a wider question of what happens to IoT tech as the market evolves. As someone that's worked in "pervasive computing" and IoT for some time this is naturally of interest to me.

There's a number of potential solutions, and their accompanying issues, that have come past in news articles and Twitter, including:

  • Use products with standards, assuming that the idea is mature enough to have a standard. A feature of innovation is that at least part of the idea is often ahead of the standards curve.
  • Provide a refund and ease people onto a new system, assuming they are willing to invest in that on the back of their previous investment being a dud.
  • Sell or open source the cloud software so others can keep it going to service the device. However, in most cases this software may contain some significant IP that the company probably wants to sell or reuse in a pivot of their idea. If open source was the right solution it would probably have been part of the picture well in advance of pulling the product.

So, what to do?

My suggestion is that the IoT is a good example of a system where "cloud" services supporting the devices would benefit from a different approach: 
It isn't the cloud, it's a cloud.
By which I mean: don't sell me a device that connects to some centralised cloud service - unless you're really small scale and alpha-testing. Sell me something that brings up its own cloud service, maybe with a provider I choose, and that I get billed for. It can let my phone know where to look so they can talk - it will just be a URL and the physical thing can bootstrap disseminating this.

Maybe this is a systems architect's solution, and certainly feels obvious if you cast this as a distributed systems problem, but I can see several advantages:
  • If the vendor switches their systems off mine can keep going. If there's some advantage to them aggregating data from many customers that can happen by forwarding on from my cloud to theirs - and fail cleanly if the need changes. The crucial step being to eliminate centralised nodes in the control loop.
  • The home systems can point at a repo with appropriate security to manage centralised updates. There's no particular need to give me a login to the cloud service, so the secret sauce isn't much more exposed than it would be when centralised - especially given that one end of it is hardware in my possession. 
  • By putting my data on a system which I control I can be given greater and more plausible control over my privacy. My detailed data is visible to fewer people and a hacker has to gain access to many systems to gather large amounts of data.
  • By distributing the system over many little services scalability is easy and system failures affect fewer users.

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