IoT Architecture Building Blocks and Layers
The Internet of Things (IoT) has become part and parcel of our lives. There are already 14 million connected IoT devices already, according to Gartner, with 127 new devices added to the IoT environment every second. This should result in about 25 billion connected devices by 2021, 41 billion by 2017, and at least 125 billion connected devices by 2030.
These devices are found everywhere – both at home and at work – and connected in such a way that they are at the center of everything we do. At home, you can now tap the screen of a smartphone to open your door or the car door – two tasks that previously required a physical key. You can also speak to smart home devices such as Amazon Alexa to order food or other items online.
At work, telecommuting is the new normal. Rather than squeeze workers into a small building, many employers are now choosing to let employees work from home with the help of teleconferencing tools. Automation in the workplace has also seen technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) take up a few roles to free up time for other tasks. It’s just so seamless and convenient!
But, did you know that in between that smartphone or Alexa device and the tasks you ultimately accomplish lies a large and mostly invisible infrastructure that comprises multiple elements and interactions? Did you know that it takes several of these elements communicating to get your tasks done?
This article takes a closer look at the underworld of the internet of things to uncover how the cogs move to accomplish those tasks.
The Seven Components of the IoT Infrastructure
The most basic IoT infrastructure model comprises just four layers – the network layer, the middleware layer, the applications layer, and smart things. However, more recently, experts have broken the layers further to come up with seven compartments as follows;
The perception layer is the foundational layer of the internet of things. This is where the analog world meets the digital world – where analog signals are converted to digital data and vice versa.
The three most notable components of the perception layer are sensors, actuators, and machines. Sensors include things such as probes, gauges, and meters, among others. These devices turn analog signals into digital readings and send them to the IoT environment.
Actuators, meanwhile, are mostly found in motor controllers, lasers, and robotic arms. They translate electrical signals into digital readings. Machines/devices are typically large systems that use sensors or actuators as integral parts.
The connectivity layer enables communication across the various components of the IoT system. It connects the devices, networks, cloud services, and all the other components of the internet of things environment.
The two main features of the connectivity layer are the TCP or UDP/IP stack and gateways. TCP/IPs connect devices and the other IoT components directly while gateways perform translation between different protocols as well as encrypt and decrypt data.
Specific communication technologies in this layer include Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, LPWAN, ZigBee, and cellular networks. Standard protocols, meanwhile, include Data Distribution Service (DDS), Advanced Message Queuing Protocol (AMQP), Constrained Application Protocol (CAP), and Message Queue Telemetry Transport (MQTT).
Edge computing layer
This is a new layer that you may not find in earlier diagrams of the IoT framework. But, it’s a crucial component nonetheless.
Why? Because the edge computing layer is where IoT meets 5G. It’s where IoT meets the speed and scale required to deliver a truly connected-world experience. The 5G network gives IoT faster speed, lower latency, and the ability to handle a larger volume of connected devices.
The primary benefit of edge computing (which essentially means processing data as close to the source as possible) is that it saves time and resources. Rather than sending data to cloud servers located thousands of miles away, the storage and processing happen at the node closest to the source.
Data analysis involves the accumulation and abstraction of incoming data to make it useful for IoT devices and applications.
The accumulation starts with data capture through APIs and then data storage in a form that is readily available for applications. The data can be stored in data lakes or more specific storage locations such as event stores or telemetry databases.
On the other hand, data abstraction refers to preparing the data so that applications can use it to extract useful information. Among other things, it involves combining data from different sources, reconciling multiple data formats, and aggregating data in one place.
The application layer is where data in the IoT system meets a real need – solving business questions. The data is analyzed by various applications to extract meaningful information, which is then used to solve real-life problems.
Applications typically used in data analysis include device monitoring and control software, mobile applications, business intelligence software, and analytics solutions that rely on machine learning, such as the Amazon Alexa we mentioned earlier.
These applications can currently be built on software-as-a-service platforms for easy implementation. SaaS infrastructure makes data mining, advanced analytics, and data visualization a lot easier.
The final two layers – the business and security layers – are also components of the IoT system you may not find in other IoT infrastructure discussions. But, just like the edge computing layer, they are vital.
The business layer is an extension of the application. Here too, it’s about the data within the IoT infrastructure proving its worth. The only difference is that the business layer is even more invested in ROI. Does the information and insight generated from the data and processes increase productivity? Does it make the user’s life better?
Put differently, whereas the application layer is all about putting the data to use, the business layer wants to know if putting it to that specific use solves an existing problem. If it doesn’t, then it must be refined.
Finally, the security layer dwells on securing the IoT environment from top to bottom. The three key elements of the IoT architecture that need securing are the devices, connectivity, and the cloud.
Securing devices is achieved both in the hardware and firmware. It involves embedding trusted platform module chips for authentication and protection of endpoints, securing boot processes to prevent unauthorized code from running, and updating security patches.
Cloud and connectivity security, meanwhile, is primarily achieved through encryption to limit exposure to intruders. End-to-end data encryption, device authentication, and access control are other strategies used to secure cloud and connectivity in the IoT environment.
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