IoT: A smart edge device looks for contacts

Technologies of the Web of Things (WoT) are intended to make the IoT convenient in a way similar to application development on the web

The new W3C Web of Things (WoT) standard makes IoT configuration and the development of IoT apps a lot easier, faster, and less expensive. It’s an important milestone for the Internet of Things (IoT).

The IoT always looks so simple in overview graphics. Different components – small terminal devices, edge devices, and the cloud – are instantly interconnected, can exchange data with one another, and collaborate seamlessly. The reality is, of course, much more complicated, especially because different manufacturers use different technologies, data models, and instruction sets in their IoT components. Until now, connectivity hasn’t been possible without a complex conversion of the different languages.

If you’ve ever installed a home IoT using components from different manufacturers, then you’ll understand. But it isn’t only private users that struggle with the pitfalls of IoT configuration. It’s also the industry pros – for example, when trying to connect factories or infrastructures for charging e-cars. Experts at Siemens estimate that around 50 percent of the expense of setting up a new IoT structure is currently for configuration. The new W3C Web of Things (WoT) standard, and particularly the WoT Thing Description, is intended to improve this.

W3C – authority on Internet standards

The  World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has adopted the Thing Description. Although the W3C is not an official standardization institution and can only issue what it calls recommendations, the consortium is generally recognized as the number-one authority on Internet and web standards. Over 400 organizations – including research institutions, well-known companies, and other groups – currently participate.

Sebastian Käbisch, IoT expert at Siemens, Co-Chair of the W3C WoT Working Group and coeditor of the Thing Description explains: “Technologies of the WoT like the Thing Description are intended to make the IoT convenient in a way similar to application development on the web. There, it’s understood that services from different vendors and manufacturers (e.g. weather data, map services, and payment services) can be easily orchestrated in an application and executed on our everyday terminal devices, regardless of platform. The important thing to understand is that the Thing Description is not a new, universal language that replaces currently standard IoT technologies. If it were, most companies would probably decline to participate and the recommendation would then be worthless. Instead, it’s an extension that conforms to typical technological language standards.”

Like a profile on LinkedIn

Things in the IoT sometimes differ greatly. For example, they include microcomputers that only send the data from a sensor to the cloud as well as powerful computer systems or even virtual units made up of multiple components. “The Thing Description combines information about a Thing in a standard format – for example, the data and functionalities it offers, the communication protocol that should be used, as well as other important metadata. In other words, basic information that’s necessary for connecting to the IoT and that especially identifies what kind of Thing it is and what instruction sets and data formats it uses,” says Käbisch.

A Thing Description can be likened to a profile on LinkedIn. In these profiles (Thing Descriptions), experts from a variety of industries – all of which have their own special, industry-specific terminology (different language standards remain) – use a standardized format to tell one another who they are, what they can do, and what they’ve achieved. Each person understands this uniform standard and thus knows which experts will understand which industry-specific language.

“Significantly reduces outlay”

“The Thing Description significantly reduces the outlay necessary for IoT configurations,” says Käbisch. “It allows us to develop apps that can adapt to the different language standards of Things, which also makes them reusable. Exactly how much we save on configuration depends on the particular case, but we’re expecting reductions of up to 90 percent.”

The W3C’s work doesn’t end with the Thing Description. Far from it.  The consortium has also set ambitious goals for the future, with a focus on Thing Description templates, discovery, and security, so that in the future, the Internet of Things can become just as convenient as websites on the Internet.

Aenne Barnard June 2020

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