Digital Agenda for Europe
A Europe 2020 Initiative

Putting interoperability into the Internet of Things

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A European team has created a framework and starter kit for the Internet of Things (IoT) covering the technical design of protocols, interfaces and algorithms, and an architectural model for scalability, interoperability and security.
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In an IoT world, objects and people will have their own unique identifiers and the ability to automatically transfer data without face-to-face contact – or even human-to-computer interaction. But while linking everyday appliances up to the internet is very much in vogue right now, there is still some way to go until the IoT is fully operational. The main hurdles are interoperability and security.

As an example, e-health is often touted as a sector set to gain from the IoT. The combination of smart sensors and internet connectivity could be used to monitor heart rate, blood pressure or breathing – for example – and send out an alert when any abnormality is detected. The Internet of Things Architecture (IoT-A) project produced 14 prototype devices to illustrate the real-life use of the IoT for health and retail. For example:

  • a medicine cabinet is able to send an alert to the doctor and carer when an at-home patient’s supply of drugs runs low, while the prescription can be uploaded by the carer and scanned by the pharmacist;
  • a shopper can choose to receive personalised recommendations once in a shop, and can also scan items for product information, such as nutritional values.

These concepts also have other wide-ranging applications, such as cars that communicate with one another or call for an ambulance when a collision occurs.

Creating a common language

Basic communication between heterogeneous devices is already possible. You can control what music is playing in different rooms around the house with your smartphone, for example. But a lack of interoperability limits this interaction to simple and defined cases. Existing solutions also fail to address the scalability requirements of an IoT: there is currently no robust governance model for such a huge number of devices, and many security issues remain unresolved.

Over three years, the IoT-A project developed solutions to some of these key stumbling blocks. One major result is an architectural reference model for the interoperability of IoT systems, a scalable and secure solution that outlines principles and guidelines for the technical design of protocols, interfaces and algorithms – the rules and programs that drive these systems.

Using the IoT-A architectural reference model makes it possible to connect vertically closed systems, architectures and application areas, creating instead open, interoperable systems and integrated environments and platforms. Using this as a foundation, software companies and integrators will be able to develop consumer-oriented platforms, including hardware, software and services.

“The most amazing outcome from my point of view was actually the identification of key aspects that were similar across different domains,” says Christoph Thümmler, professor of e-health at Edinburgh Napier University and IoT-A Stakeholder Board member. “We discovered the smallest common denominator, which the architects and technicians could then use to create a model, the architecture reference model of IoT-A.”

End-users, system architects and other IoT enthusiasts can find full details of the architecture in the book Enabling Things to Talk, published by the IoT-A team.

The book includes a detailed description of a process for generating architectures, as well as reference manuals with guidelines on how to use various models and perspectives to create a robust architecture. Best practices and tips will also help system engineers use the model to develop specific IoT architectures.

Connecting internet ‘things’ with the real world

IoT-A was also able to develop a novel mechanism for scalable ‘look-up and discovery’ for IoT resources, and entities/objects and their associations. This mechanism will be able to connect names and identities to addresses and locators used by communication services, thereby enabling cross-layer communication between IoT resources, services and applications – or between internet ‘things’, real-world objects and associated objects.

The success of this reference architecture not only depends on its technical merits but also on its adoption by the community at large. IoT-A has implemented a variety of strategic means to ensure its results are accepted, and that the desired impact is attained. In addition to the project’s academic partners, industrial partners and IoT enthusiasts must now spread the word to ensure widespread take-up.


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Last updated on 23/02/2015