Smart objects power smart enterprises

When the PC brought computing to the desktop three decades ago, it began a revolution that's led to a quantum leap in the speed and productivity in the offices of businesses and institutions. Today, smart object technology promises to bring a similar shift in efficiency and intelligence to physical infrastructure, logistics chains and customer relationships.

These smart objects, devices that combine processing power, sensor technology and communications capabilities, can be added to equipment, buildings, inventory and virtually any other asset within the enterprise and communicate with management information systems (MIS). The data collected can give both managers and workers a detailed, dynamic picture of system status, asset location and resource utilization within their operational unit or across the entire enterprise.

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Many smart objects can also receive simple commands, allowing rapid, highly granular control of everything from lighting and environmental controls to industrial processes and other complex systems. Unfortunately, the realization of this promise has been relatively slow because many of today's smart objects are still using proprietary communication protocols, making it difficult to move data and commands across corporate and institutional networks which use the Internet Protocol (IP).

If smart object technology is to realize its potential, it must adopt IP as a bridge between the traditional MIS environment and "the Internet of things." Only by leveraging the vast installed base of IP-based networks can the power of today's MIS resources be freed to move beyond the desktop and into the real world. The IPSO (Internet Protocol for Smart Objects) Alliance is the primary advocate for IP-based smart objects for use in energy, consumer, healthcare and industrial applications. Founded as a nonprofit association in 2008, IPSO continues to grow rapidly with more than 50 leading technology, communications and energy company members.

These companies are deploying IP-enabled smart object technologies to relieve "pain points," places within their operational and logistics chains where the lack of visibility and control makes normal operations less efficient and slows their response to changing demands.

The disconnects often occur at system boundaries where information about critical processes, material flows and system status is still siloed within an operational unit and not readily available to the other groups or the MIS infrastructure. In other cases, pain points occur where critical information is still collected manually or is not available at all.

Smart objects 101

Before looking at how some enterprises use smart objects, it might be helpful to review the essential concepts. For the purposes of this article, we can define a smart object as any device that:

- Has some level of processing capability.

- Can sense its own status and/or some aspect of its environment, or act on the local environment.

- Has the ability to share this information with other objects or machines across a network.

- In many cases, smart objects can also receive commands to configure themselves or control an external device such as a light, a relay, a motor or the contents of a display.

Smart objects communicate with each other and their host networks across wired and wireless media using a variety of media access and transmission protocol standards. While the objects themselves may communicate using a proprietary signaling scheme like LonWorks, BACnet or a company-specific protocol, the data they exchange almost always finds its way onto the enterprise network as an IP packet stream. IP-based communication is essential to the effective use of smart objects in the enterprise because it provides an efficient conduit between the real-world data they generate and the compute resources of the MIS center.

While many of these capabilities have been available for over a decade using larger, more expensive pieces of equipment, the low cost of single-chip networked microcontrollers (MCUs) and the widespread adoption of IP-based protocols now makes it practical to add connectivity and intelligence to nearly any device or product.

The processing power and bandwidth available in these devices covers a broad continuum, ranging from sub-$1 MCUs with integrated IEEE802.15.4/ZigBee transceivers in light switches, door locks and electric meters to the 32-bit processors that power point-of-sale terminals and inventory control scanners capable of interacting directly with a corporate database.

Although the technology is still in its infancy, the case studies presented here are good examples of how smart objects are already contributing to the growth and the bottom line of many forward-thinking companies.

Duke Energy

One dramatic example of how smart object technology is transforming the way large enterprises do business is Duke Energy, a leading electric power utility operator in the southeastern United States.

Driven by a confluence of economic and environmental issues, the company has become active in the development and adoption of the smart grid standard and the Smart Object technologies that will be used to implement it. This broad-based framework of open standards and communication protocols is being developed in a public/private partnership between the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP), a consortium of utilities, technology companies, and other stakeholders in the energy industry.

DETAILS: Cisco and Duke Energy work to build smart grid

Gary Stuebing, a systems integration engineer at Duke Energy, explains that, among other things, the smart grid promises to provide a unified architecture for monitoring and controlling generation, distribution and transmission resources. When fully realized, the smart grid's unified data infrastructure will rely on IP-capable smart object technology to help utilities improve their reliability, cut operating costs, enable the integration of renewable energy sources and implement billing schemes based on dynamic price models.

Although smart grid standards are still in development, IP-enabled smart object technology is already being deployed in some smart meters. These replacements for the electromechanical meters contain an embedded processor and measurement circuitry that can collect detailed information about customers' energy consumption, which is transmitted to a central collection point via a power line modem or a wireless link (typically ZigBee/IEEE802.15.4, Wi-Fi or cellular data).

"Together, these capabilities will help utilities provide real-time or near-real-time data to the consumer, utility and other parties," Stuebing says. The information collected from smart meters will enable the utility to monitor peak load levels, analyze demand profiles, and assemble a detailed picture of the distribution network that will greatly enhance both day-to-day management and long-term planning.

The smart meter's data link also serves as a two-way portal that enables a utility to communicate with its customers, making it possible to send real-time pricing information and allow consumers to monitor their own impact when they change usage. This makes it easy for the utility to implement dynamic pricing schemes, peak load management systems, or make efficient use of the distributed solar generating capacity available from customers' rooftop photovoltaic arrays. "When you mention smart grid, people tend to think of the smart power meters that many utilities are starting to deploy," Stuebing says, "but they are only a small part of the smart grid equation."

Smart grid technology also promises to relieve one of the other major pain points that most utilities struggle with: providing a common infrastructure for fragmented data and control systems. Stuebing says that, until recently, the systems behind today's power grid have changed little in the past 50-plus years with modern computer technology applied on an as-needed basis in a piecemeal fashion. The result is a collection of loosely connected operational domains (generation, distribution, metering, line maintenance and customer service) acting as virtually separate entities with little information exchanged between their operational networks.

The consequences of a fragmented information infrastructure are especially evident in the distribution network where substations and other critical system elements are usually managed via phone calls between facility operators. In some cases, these facilities are not monitored at all. This means that system fault often requires a costly truck roll and that the time required to locate and diagnose the problem can be measured in tens of minutes -- or even hours.

Smart objects connected through IP-based networks can help liberate the data trapped within these systems. The use of IP allows the enterprise network to collect status data from the critical elements and pass it to a centralized database and messaging system. This unified database can be accessed by specialized applications that can quickly transform data from multiple sources into actionable information. In some cases, they can even help avoid trouble before it happens.

Duke Energy has also considered several other smart object applications, including "smart streetlights." These networked lights would have an embedded processor and a communication link that allows the utility operator to monitor each fixture's temperature, power consumption and other operating parameters.

Besides being able to report failures, the data could help engineers identify small anomalies that indicate lights are about to fail so service can be scheduled as part of a normal workflow. Duke Energy is considering applying similar technologies to monitor line protection equipment within its distribution networks.

One possibility is placing low-cost wireless sensors at key locations along distribution legs and feeders to collect voltage and current data and pass it back across any standard IP network to Duke's operations center. System operators could then use this near-real-time data to pinpoint grid failures and dispatch a repair vehicle shortly after they occurred, a capability that could significantly reduce network down time.

IBM

As one of the original architects of the first digital revolution in the 1950 and 1960s, it's not surprising that smart objects are already making big changes in many of IBM's business units, including its Tivoli Industry Solutions group.

Jim Fletcher, chief architect at the Industry Solutions group, says Tivoli's origins lie in developing and supporting IT resource management but its charter has gradually expanded to embrace software and services that cover all aspects of enterprise and organizational management. "We took our original experience with managing complex IT systems and applied it to managing cloud computing environments, network services discovery and provisioning, and managing the energy consumption within data centers."

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Once it became apparent that the Tivoli group's unified management system allowed an MIS department to have visibility and control over all its computing and networking resources, Tivoli began to see how the same technology could be applied to tracking equipment, materials, products and other physical assets that flow through a company. Until the advent of a standards-based approach that relied primarily on IP networks, the difficulty involved with collecting and managing data from so many sources had made this a common pain point for many enterprises.

Fletcher feels that smart object technology can be a key ingredient in most of the products and services the Tivoli Industry Solutions group offers. Whether used to help track assets, support process automation or provide a unified remote management interface for an operation's IT and non-IT equipment, smart objects and the IP protocol provide a common foundation of distributed intelligence and common data structure that makes it all work.

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