Does the IoT Need the Blockchain?

By Christine Young, Blogger, Maxim Integrated

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If 2 out of every 3 internet of things (IoT) projects fail, while industry projections call for 50 billion connected devices by 2020, then that’s a ton of time and effort spent creating smart, connected products. Why the high failure rate? And what can be done about it? That was the subject that Tony Shan, chief IoTologist at Wipro Technologies, probed during his talk at this year’s IoT World conference in Santa Clara, California.

“The picture is not so promising,” Shan told his audience at the event’s IoT Developer Stage. “There are a lot of reasons. We have more than 400 platforms in the IoT space and, talk about standards, there are more than 100 in this area.”

Shan pointed to survey results for the top three reasons companies develop IoT products in the first place:
• Improve quality of service or products
• Enhance workforce productivity
• Increase operations reliability

There are various barriers that are preventing successful implementations, however. From disjointed platforms to IT environment complexity to proprietary products and fragmented implementations, designers have many challenges to overcome. This, says Shan, is where an IoT pattern framework can help. A pattern can address specific requirements, such as security or data analytics. Designers could also combine multiple patterns to solve a tough problem. IoT patterns are beneficial because they help facilitate a repeatable solution. They also provide a common baseline for describing and implementing a solution, so that designers don’t have to build their idea out from scratch, Shan explained. The process is, to be sure, methodical, requiring designers to seek out common seeds in order to uncover best practices to tackle problems. Design concerns are classified, and the pattern structure informs ways to address these concerns.

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The IoT pattern structure can be broken down into these segments:
• Category: groups of classifications
• Area: stage breakdown in the IoT pipeline
• Type: kind of IoT solution

These segments are further broken down as follows:
• BATS: business, application, technology, service
• CUBS: creational, universal, behavioral, structural (classifying different ways to look at patterns)
• SCAD: sensing, connection, analysis, delivery

How the Blockchain Can Secure IoT Applications

Shan could only share a high-level overview of IoT patterning in his half-hour talk. He did highlight a couple of top challenges of IoT designs: security and privacy. Security was a key focus in the next talk on the IoT Developer Stage. Members of the Trusted IoT Alliance talked about what they are doing to use the blockchain to secure IoT applications.

Blockchain, secured via advanced cryptography, provides a tamper-proof distributed record of transactions; it’s maintained by a network of computers on the internet. It’s an underlying component for bitcoin, providing a public ledger for transactions, and the Alliance is developing a shared blockchain protocol to secure IoT products. In April, the group, comprised of five enterprises and six startups, launched an IoT “thing” registration API that supports several blockchain implementations. Users can register serial numbers, QR codes, and UPC code identities and bind them to stronger cryptographic identities. Blockchain technology is used to immutably link these cryptographic identities across digital and physical worlds.

This blockchain flowchart provides a visual representation of the concept behind this tamper-proof method to secure online transactions. The Trusted IoT Alliance believes that the blockchain can also be used to secure IoT applications.

“From IT infrastructure to operational infrastructure, software on distributed systems can be fingerprinted elements within the blockchain system,” noted Anoop Nannra, a technology strategist in Cisco’s Corporate Strategic Innovation Group.

Joe Pindar, director of product strategy at Gemalto, highlighted that blockchain technology can bring a sense of mutual trust to internet-based transactions. All of the players are equal in the environment of the blockchain, and the data is real and trusted by all. By contrast, in a hierarchical approach, he said, the smaller guys don’t always trust the bigger players. Zaki Manian, a founder of Skuchain, added that conventionally, we don’t trust IoT devices to make business decisions, like exercising a letter of credit or releasing a payment. However, with the blockchain, secured IoT devices can be designated to control business decisions, he said. Manian noted that blockchain also solves the problem of identity, particularly in industrial applications where a connected device (like a shipping container) gets passed from one organization to another. With the blockchain, each organization doesn’t have to reprovision the ID for the shipping container each time it changes hands. Provisioning can be handled when the silicon is manufactured, a much more efficient approach.

Allliance members believe that the blockchain can enable the next level of the IoT, facilitating trusted data sharing and transactions between connected things. They anticipate greater efficiencies and reduced cost of doing business. One example is the Share&Charge charging station network in Germany, which brings together owners of charging stations and electric vehicle (EV) drivers to expand the country’s charging infrastructure. Another example is the secondary car market, where the blockchain can make it easier to reliably validate data like vehicle mileage or the health of the EV battery.

Who, after all, wants to reinvent the wheel? As the panelists noted, the blockchain can provide a common identifier for connected devices and a means to build solutions on top of this.


 

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