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Enabling M2M Communications

Quality of cloud networks will be critical

Perhaps the next technological wave that will revolutionize how we live is the communication between devices, known as machine-to-machine (M2M) communication. Humanity has imagined such a world many times in the domain of science fiction, including on TV shows such as "Star Trek" and "The Jetsons." Now we see this concept coming to fruition as technology leaders make strides toward enabling intelligence in and between devices.

According to ABI research, there will be 50 billion new M2M devices on the market in the next 10 years. In fact, AT&T - once synonymous with just phones - has recently certified more than 1,000 new connected devices to work on its network, mostly within the M2M market. Additionally, most worldwide mobile network operators (MNOs) have created specialized business units to address this market, since wireless radio technology is one of the key communication mediums between devices to enable M2M applications.

Widespread availability of M2M technology has already spurred innovative use cases across different industries, such as smart grid in energy/utilities; communication between various devices for security and industrial/building control; environmental monitoring; and many applications in the consumer domain ranging from retail to home appliance intelligence.

For example:

  • In the shipping industry, a company delivering goods to a merchant can employ a device that tracks the precise location of specific products in transit. This information can then be relayed to customers so they can pinpoint when to expect their delivery and plan accordingly.
  • In health care, individuals, regardless of location, can monitor their own health by wearing medical devices that collect vital stats, such as blood pressure levels, which then can be sent through the cloud where medical personnel can read and take action if necessary. This service reduces the number of routine visits for patients without hindering care.
  • In agriculture, farmers can connect water pumps with wireless and satellite networks to access real-time information on water use and soil conditions. This knowledge helps them to plan for electric and water usage year round to ensure timely irrigation of crops without having to inspect their property acre by acre.

The above applications are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of possibility when it comes to M2M communications.

The Ecosystem and the Role of Cloud Computing
The principle of M2M communications is straightforward. Sensors are installed on consumer or commercial hardware to communicate application-relevant information to other sensors and/or to a centralized storage facility. Based on this information, complicated algorithms infer decisions relevant to the specific application and execute accordingly. While this is simple in theory, in practice, it actually requires the construction of a complex communications network, including a clear communications path between devices and storage; the ability to store, process and analyze large amounts of data; and the ability to take action based on this intelligence.

Fortunately, the evolution of the computing industry toward cloud has enabled the storage of huge amounts of data originating from devices and also made the analysis of this data computationally feasible. Without these technological advances, the data acquired from the multitude of sensors or devices would be just that - data - and not actionable intelligence. To the above mentioned attributes, and the economies of scale enabled by cloud computing, it has emerged as the de facto method for storing and sending data generated by M2M communications. As such, it is important for M2M vendors to understand what it takes to enable secure and reliable transfer of information via the cloud.

Triggers and Behavior
M2M communication can be triggered by both planned and unplanned events. For example, in a smart grid application, smart meters can send information about electricity consumption to a centralized database at prescheduled times. At the other extreme, sensors can react to unplanned events that happen in the real world and trigger increased communication in a certain geography or location. The network that connects these devices to each other and/or to the cloud - ABI Research forecasts there will be more than 1.5 billion wireless connected devices by 2014 that are not mobile phones - has to perform in both instances, adapting to both forecasted increases in traffic and random spikes, with automatic, assured performance.

Network Infrastructure Requirements
The network platform that enables M2M communication has multiple segments: the access segment (wireless radio or wireline-based), backhaul to the cloud and the cloud network.

Figure 1: Information from billions of sensors is captured in data centers for processing. Sensor data is transmitted over a wireless access network, mobile backhaul and core network to the data centers.

Sensor data travels to the cloud over wireless/radio or wireline access infrastructures. The aggregation network has to provide highly resilient, scalable and cost-effective backhaul either from mobile or wireline access to be effective.

In addition, in order to enable cloud as a platform for technology adoption and innovation for M2M communication, the cloud has to serve as a high-performance computing platform. Many refer to this as an enterprise-grade or carrier-grade cloud. A high-performance cloud network should include the following attributes:

  • Terabit-level connectivity, high-performance and high-assurance: The success of M2M computing is incumbent upon a reliable, scalable and robust network; otherwise bandwidth-intensive applications are not feasible. The expected exponential growth of M2M devices will require massive amounts of data to be stored and processed in the cloud. Hence, the network that interconnects the data centers that are part of a public or private cloud must scale to 100G now, and terabit-level capacity in the future.

Additionally, the virtualization of storage and servers across multiple data centers puts increased requirements on the network: the network has to have high-performance and reliability; low jitter; low latency; scalable bandwidth capacity; and protection against multiple levels of failures.

  • Dynamic bandwidth: This connection-oriented, high-performance cloud network must also be economically viable. The network should adapt to fluctuating demand seamlessly, scaling up and scaling down on-demand so that service providers can exploit network assets in an economically viable way through pay-per-use, while ensuring application performance is achieved.
  • Interoperability between cloud computing sub-systems: The M2M value chain is complex and fragmented. For the cloud platform to perform optimally, the network has to be integrated with other elements of the cloud computing system - namely, storage and servers. This integration is accomplished by allowing the network to be controlled by the cloud "machine" through software application programming interfaces (APIs).

M2M without the cloud will not deliver the enterprise value that will be expected in the near future. To fully take advantage of the "Internet of Things" principle, interoperability among all players in the M2M chain must be a priority, otherwise M2M's ubiquity and cost structure will not be fully realized.

Machine-to-machine connectivity will fundamentally transform our society and the way we live. The successful adoption of this technology depends on the maturity of multiple elements in the ecosystem, including the wireless technology and business system; the network connectivity that connects the machines/sensors to the cloud; the cloud computing platform; and the software applications that translate the huge amount of information collected into useful intelligence.

To build a carrier or enterprise grade, public or private cloud computing platform, the underlying cloud network that interconnects multiple data centers has to be reliable, high performing and assuring; deterministic/connection-oriented; have low latency, and low jitter characteristics; be responsive and integrated into the cloud ecosystem to satisfy the connectivity requirements of the storage and compute cloud subsystems; and allow for elastic/liquid bandwidth to enable high performance and the economic benefits of the cloud. Packet-optical transport networks - with the ability to scale to 100G today and terabit capacities in the future, and with multiple levels of resiliency enabled by an intelligent control plane - will be critical to enabling these cloud networks.

More Stories By Mariana Agache

Mariana Agache is a Director of Industry Marketing at Ciena Corporation, with primary responsibility for the service provider segment. She joined the company in March 2010 through the acquisition of Nortel’s Metro Ethernet Networks business, where she spent the majority of her career. With more than 10 years of experience in the telecommunications sector, Mariana has held various global positions in portfolio, business and strategic planning; product management; sales; network engineering and research and development. She holds an MBA from the University of Ottawa, an MS from Carleton University and received executive education from the Harvard Business School.

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