IBM researchers are looking into the possibility of using block chain technology for the Internet of Things (IoT) – a term for the growing network of devices with basic computer-like capabilities that communicate over the web.
The IoT is likely to bring a major change in the way we use technology, with interaction between connected everyday devices (such as pacemakers, fire alarms or air-conditioning units) and humans increasingly becoming the norm.
Now IBM is examining the use of block chain technology for an IoT distribution platform, backed by other peer-to-peer (P2P) technologies.
The system, dubbed 'Adept', will rely on three different technologies to resolve a number of issues related to IoT development and commercialisation.
Three key protocols
Although it was conceived in IBM’s labs, Adept is not an official 'Big Blue' product. Instead, it is open-source software to be released on GitHub.
Adept will employ block chain technology in its distributed transaction processing engine that will allow IoT devices to communicate and interact with one another.
Paul Brody, head of mobile and Internet of Things at IBM, told Gigaom that block chain technology can allow IoT devices to ‘understand’ what other devices around them are up to and it can support different kinds of instructions and permissions.
The block chain could allow devices to track other devices and their relationship to them, while maintaining security and offloading the power-hungry authentication process to the block chain network. The devices could store their ‘relationships’ with other devices via the block chain, allowing them to authenticate other devices and users.
IBM plans to use another P2P technology to ensure connectivity. BitTorrent – a protocol commonly used for file sharing – could be used to move packets of data on slow networks. Since many IoT devices will not have a wasteful high-speed modem and always-on connectivity, a P2P system like BitTorrent would provide a more robust network, the team says.
The third technology to be employed in Adept is Telehash, a private messaging protocol with end-to-end encryption. Other services can be built on top of it, allowing secure communication between various IoT devices.
Brody said there are two main reasons behind his team’s decision to use P2P technologies. Cost is the primary factor, as managing all IoT devices in a centralised cloud would simply be too expensive in the long run. IoT devices are envisioned as low-cost, low-maintenance devices that should run for years if not decades.
The sheer number of devices represents a big challenge too. Speaking at the Intel Developer Forum 2014 on Tuesday, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said the company expects as many as 50 billion connected devices will be deployed by the end of the decade.
Market research firm Gartner has given the more conservative estimate that 26 billion IoT devices will be installed by 2020, but said even this number will generate incremental value exceeding $300bn. With such figures in mind, it is clear that Brody’s decentralised peer-to-peer system could tap into a huge emerging market.
Another factor is the business model itself. IBM's Brody said the block chain could lead to new business models for all companies involved in the space, allowing IoT devices to share data, processing power, bandwidth and even electricity.
Brody outlined his vision for a decentralised Internet of Things in a Gigaom podcast earlier this week. In essence, the block chain approach proposed by Brady would not have to rely on scarcity like bitcoin, which means it could operate without industrial-scale mining which is slowly taking over the bitcoin network.
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