Forecasting the future of machine-to-machine communication

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This article from Lantronix looks at what is needed to bring about wider acceptance of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, and how M2M will evolve in the not-too-distant future.

As the world of device networking evolves and technology advances, users and manufacturers alike are calling for more complete systems that offer ubiquitous reach. There are several trends shaping the future of machine-to-machine (M2M) technology, including the move toward true autonomous control of networked equipment and a greater level of intelligence built into the machine infrastructure. But, what may have the greatest impact – actively propelling the M2M market toward substantial growth – is the convergence of technologies that enable an end-to-end system for device control.

For the past few years, analysts have touted M2M as a rapidly-growing market full of promise. Technologies such as web services, XML data schemas and RFID were expected to impact the market's growth, as well as remote device server technology that effectively enables M2M communications and is the foundation for distributed device intelligence. The market for M2M is ripe with possibility due to the convergence of four major trends:

  1. The omnipotence of the internet now connects everyone and everything quickly and easily
  2. Users now expect continuous access to information
  3. Users now recognise the need for and value of real-time information sharing
  4. Technological advancements have lead to a reduction in both the size and cost of networking hardware and software

But even with the huge expectations surrounding it, the M2M market has seen slower than expected growth. This is largely due to the fact that companies see the difficulties and risk of designing with disparate technologies needed to make M2M a reality. There is also uncertainty about the results and ROI of implementing these systems.

There is no doubt that the technologies required to make M2M a reality are readily available, from hardware to software, user interface to server-side applications. What has been missing is a single source to unify implementation. By putting all the pieces together, suppliers will inevitably create more advanced systems that make it easier to share information. For suppliers, this would mean finally demonstrating the significance of M2M; for users, it would mean having an 'all-access pass' to enjoy all the benefits of M2M through connectivity.

The first step toward total information convergence is the adoption of device networking technology within the market. While this has been achieved, the next step is for suppliers to provider the other pieces of the puzzle. Once this has been achieved, vendors will be more likely to stick with the same supplier, creating long-term partnerships that will drive the creation of complete systems and grow confidence in M2M. Beyond that, suppliers can work together to create complete systems that will gain wider acceptance.

M2M application possibilities

Remote device management via device servers enables users to proactively monitor usage and performance of equipment from anywhere, anytime. The ideal is a system that is fully-automated, programmable and ubiquitously available to users. It should also be an effective end-to-end system that is capable of managing the complexities and inherent risks of implementing a comprehensive M2M system based on otherwise incompatible devices.

With autonomous device control, users have the ability to anticipate and even prevent problems before they occur. When a problem does exist, they can remotely identify and diagnose it before deploying technicians, making repair operations more efficient. In some cases, problems or actions that would typically be addressed by a technician or require human intervention could actually be handled automatically by networked equipment in real time.

The ability to utilise existing web tools to automate reporting and centralise device management leads to more efficient processes. Beyond internal operations, the application of remote autonomous device control can result in improved service for customers, thereby enhancing customer relations. Results are generated more quickly due to remote access to controls for problem detection, streamlining of diagnosis and repair, and the ability to partner with others to troubleshoot issues more efficiently. Service management can also be improved through reporting tools, dashboards and metrics. Having access to usage and equipment monitoring data enables preventative maintenance, saving organisations from unnecessary downtime.

As the promise of M2M states, the better the technology gets, the more machines that will begin to interact directly with each other and the network, all requiring less human intervention. Virtually everything that has anything to do with information management and control is now becoming internet- or Ethernet-connected, meaning that machines are already working together. The efficiency this provides is phenomenal – a huge leap from the way businesses worked even a few years ago. Consider the following example, which illustrates the use of device servers for maintaining security in a facility.

Application example

Most large facilities have a number of security cameras placed in critical areas throughout their premises, which are generally connected to the network or internet via device server technology. With the use of these device servers and networking technology, security guards can monitor all cameras remotely. If an incident occurs, the security guards are notified, at which time they have the opportunity to manually locate the specific camera recording the incident and zoom in for more information. When a programmable device server is connected to the cameras, the security system can incorporate programs that will automatically pan and zoom the camera if a person walks by the camera, and, as defined by the user, not only trigger an alarm but initiate other associated events such as turning on the lights or reporting the identity based on a proximity reader or other identification systems. Users can also program the device server to react to more than one event simultaneously. For example, if a wire is cut, or the door is not shut within the allotted time, the device server can trigger an alarm or notify security.

With convergence comes end-to-end networking and communication. This means that an alarm can trigger other unrelated actions to take place. For example, it can send an email to employees of a high-security facility to lock down their workstations. It can also signal security to look for authorised personnel who should be walking through the doors at a given time and those who tend to prop the door open, then send an email to any violator's management to assure the event is not repeated.

An example of autonomous network control is EventTrak technology from Lantronix. EventTrak is a scripting language that enables events to be monitored and appropriate action(s) taken. When an event occurs, automatic pre-determined, user-defined commands are sent to the equipment, causing it to take appropriate and/or corrective actions – all without any user intervention. Notification can be sent via email when an event is detected and handled accordingly. EventTrak allows users to specify 'chain definitions' (series of events/actions) that can be not only be saved, stored and transferred from one device server to another but also allow interaction between multiple device servers, providing a great deal of flexibility for large-scale deployment.

Device networking provides the ability to perform real-time diagnostics and repair, automate the capturing of data, and the ability for the end user to be automatically and immediately notified of a problem. This can translate into improved efficiency, reduced operating and maintenance costs, and maximise uptime. In addition, networking can provide new service opportunities which can result in additional revenue streams.

This technology can effectively provide a gateway to a total convergence of information, providing a vehicle to connect nearly any piece of equipment to be managed from the desktop. In fact device servers are already making convergence a reality today. With advanced technologies, incoming data from an attached device can be gathered and sent via email or RSS feed, allowing hundreds of devices to be simultaneously monitored from a single RSS-enabled browser. In order to maximise the potential for device server technology, the following elements must be assured:

Cost-effectiveness - In order to make M2M cost-effective for users, basic embedded internet/Ethernet connectivity must be achievable at less than $15 per node.

Easy configuration – End users must be able to easily configure a programmable device server to monitor events and respond with pre-determined, user-defined actions. The majority of companies that design and use embedded devices are not networking specialists. Therefore all hardware and software incorporated into a system must be as plug-and-play as possible. Quick integration with the enterprise is also essential.

Security – The device server must provide full product connectivity and offer a highly-secure connection via enterprise-grade networking security. This assures complete confidence on all ends of the network, from the end-user to their partners, customers, and anyone else with approved access.

Two-way communication – Users must be able to easily establish two-way communication that works without weakening the firewalls.

Scalability – Because connected devices will continue to evolve or be added to the network, scalability to support future applications and equipment is crucial. Embedded internet/Ethernet connectivity should support a wide range of system performance and power consumption needs, and be operational in power-hungry machines and portable battery-powered devices alike.

Reliability and stability – Access to information is only as good as its connectivity. Reliability, stability and self recovery become as important as data provided.

Intelligence – Intelligence at the edge allows for monitoring and initiating complex events and autonomous interaction between nodes or device servers.

As stated previously, the only way to take M2M to the next level is for suppliers to partner together to create comprehensive end-to-end systems. For example, a patient bedside monitoring system may include the following devices: device server, local appliance for data storage, nurses station display system, patient room display system, remote server for offsite storage and record keeping, diagnostic application, remote user interface for doctors and tie-in with hospital's ILM system. In addition, knowledge of hospital networks, firewalls, software as service, and managing secure remote user are required to complete such a system.

This demonstrates how quickly a complete system becomes very complex and beyond a single vendor today (note this is a relatively simple example). However, this can be overcome by collaboration and partnership between different vendors specialising in a subset of technologies required. These include, but are not limited to, connectivity hardware, device server application, graphical user interfaces, aggregating application, specialised storage devices, local appliances for storage and user interface, and interfaces to local network including routers and firewalls.

When these elements are in place, device server technology becomes the means to connect the user to just about anything he needs access to, and to share these resources with others in his collective but secured 'community'.

Total information convergence is both necessary and technologically possible today if suppliers can partner together to make M2M a common goal. End-users now understand and appreciate the value of sharing information in real time, thanks to the advancements in networking hardware and software, and the ubiquity of the internet.

Much like the convergence of features and services that catapulted the smartphone market, M2M total convergence will take on considerable importance as those suppliers who support it provide OEMs with full end-to-end systems that give users the freedom, flexibility and immediate remote access to the intelligence they need. Once that happens, M2M will go from being a novelty that sets users apart from their competition to becoming a necessity for providing customers with the services they require. And it will not take long.

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