Sunday, February 17, 2008

Toward a Global "Internet of Things"


Toward a Global "Internet of Things"

By Steve Meloan, November 11, 2003
In the early 1990s, a small news item in Wired magazine described an obscure software product developed out of the University of Illinois. The application was called Mosaic, and it soon proved to be the "killer app" of the Internet. Within a matter of several years, an entire industry had been built around it and its successors. Mosaic was not the first application of its type, but it delivered a new paradigm of usability to the previously arcane task of "browsing" hypertext links.

Another potentially industry-defining technology recently emerged at the inaugural EPC (Electronic Product Code) Symposium, held September 15-17 in Chicago's McCormick Place The gathering marked the official launch of the Electronic Product Code Network, an open technology infrastructure developed by a global consortium of companies and researchers.

The EPC network, using tiny RFID (Radio Frequency ID) tags, will enable computers to automatically recognize and identify everyday objects, and then track, trace, monitor, trigger events, and perform actions on those objects. The technology will effectively create an "Internet of things." RFID will fundamentally impact the industries of manufacturing, retail, transportation, health care, life sciences, pharmaceuticals, and government, offering an unprecedented real-time view of assets and inventories throughout the global supply chain. And in the process, whole new vistas (and challenges) will open up to software developers.

Evolution or Revolution?
Most industry observers agree that the next wave of growth in the technology sector will be outside the realm of the traditional PC desktop. But many think of that growth in mundane terms -- with such things as cell phones and PDAs. In reality, we stand on the verge of an era that will see previously unimagined networked devices and objects. There are already some exciting applications that span the technology spectrum. offers a Java applet-driven virtual dashboard that displays real-time wireless telemetry from cars during a race -- registering location, speed, RPM, braking, and more. The race cars have effectively become networked devices. Meanwhile, NASA, with the assistance of GE Medical, is now able to monitor real-time medical data (such as blood pressure, respiration, and heart rate) from its Space Shuttle astronauts. Even trees are on the network. Fifty battery powered "micromote" sensors now dangle from UC Berkeley's Mather Redwood Grove, part of a pilot program to monitor the health of groves of redwoods. The sensors register light, moisture, and temperature, enabling scientists to continuously monitor the microclimates surrounding given trees.

Such diverse networked "devices" offer concrete evidence of Metcalfe's Law. Robert Metcalfe, one of the developers of Ethernet, formulated that the usefulness of a network increases by the square of the number of nodes (users or devices) connected to the network. (Imagine how useful the telephone system would be if there were only two phones in the world!)

"In the future, everything of value will be on the network in one form of another," says John Fowler, Software CTO of Sun Microsystems. "And once they're on the network, we can aggregate data from those diverse devices, and then deliver that data to equally diverse devices -- in informative and compelling ways." And that's exactly what we're seeing today. "Most people think of a PC or a PDA as things connected to the network," continues Fowler. "But here we are connecting trees, race cars, and astronauts to the network. It's going to become a much more seamless spectrum."

More about RFID
With the official release of the Electronic Product Code Network, we are about to see the "Internet of things" paradigm enter the big time -- the world of mainstream commerce.

Looking at the big picture, the term Auto-ID refers to any broad class of identification technologies used in the world of commerce to automate, reduce errors, and increase efficiency. These technologies include bar codes, smart cards, sensors, voice recognition, and biometrics.

But the Auto-ID technology currently on center stage is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). RFID is a generic technology that entails using tiny wireless transmitters to tag individual objects, uniquely identifying them. Such RFID tags allow companies to automatically track objects, trigger events, and perform actions upon the objects.

RFID chips have now been made as small as 0.3 millimeters (about the size of a pencil tip). There are a variety of different types -- active (battery-driven), semi-passive (also battery-driven), and passive (driven by the inductive energy of a tag reader). Each has different advantages, disadvantages, and features.

Figure 1: An Ant Playing with RFID Chips
Figure 1: An Ant Playing with RFID Chips
Figure 2: Passive RFID Tag Architecture
Figure 2: Passive RFID Tag Architecture
Figure 3: RFID Tag Types
Figure 3: RFID Tag Types
RFID transponder (transmitter/responder) technologies have long been in operation -- from the key card entry systems used in many corporate settings, to wireless toll booth payment facilities. Such passive RFID tags typically have a range of only several feet; the electromagnetic field emitted by the reader induces a current in the tag/card, causing it to transmit a low-energy wireless response.

But such technologies have previously been proprietary in nature, lacking in standards. In order to provide a truly useful "Internet of things," it's necessary to ensure open standards and global interoperability.

The Auto-ID Center
The Auto-ID Center, founded in 1999, is a non-profit, global research organization, partnered with 103 companies and institutions (representing combined annual revenues of over $1.5 trillion, and hundreds of billions of goods). The center is headquartered at MIT, with sister labs at the University of Cambridge in England, Adelaide University in Australia, Keio University in Japan, Fudan University in China, and St. Gallen University in Switzerland.

The founding sponsors of the center -- the Uniform Code Council (UCC), EAN International, Gillette, and Proctor & Gamble -- began with the vision of a world where computers could identify any object, anywhere, instantly. The member companies in the Auto-ID Center now include such major corporations as Coca-Cola, Gillette, Home Depot, Johnson & Johnson, Kraft, Lowes, PepsiCo, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Sara Lee, Target, Unilever, UPS, and Wal-Mart.

But to realize the Auto-ID Center's vision, it's first necessary to define, build, test, and deploy a global, open infrastructure on top of the Internet. This includes affordable hardware, network and software protocols, and development languages. Sun Microsystems -- with its twenty-year commitment to secure, open, networked, scalable, cross-platform technologies -- is uniquely qualified to play a major role in the Auto-ID Center's work. Since 2000, Sun has chaired the Technology Board and the Software Action Group at the Center.

The Auto-ID Center's two major goals have been to lower the cost of the RFID tags and readers, and define the technology infrastructure necessary to effectively employ them in a global, industry-wide EPC network.

EPC Code: Improving on UPC
At the core of the Auto-ID Center's just-released infrastructure for RFID technology is the EPC code, the numeric data transmitted by a tag. The EPC code is, in effect, intended to be the next generation of the Universal Product Code (UPC), or bar code, that is found on virtually every consumer item today. But unlike the UPC, the EPC is designed to operate not only without "line of sight" (that is, wirelessly), but to uniquely identify each individual object.

To foster the widespread use and interoperability of RFID technology, particularly at the level of tagging individual products and packages, cost reduction is of the essence. Tag prices are currently $.20 apiece, but are expected to drop to $.05 apiece. Readers are currently at $2000-$3000, but are expected to drop to $100. Open standards, global adoption, and multi-vendor competition will serve to bring about such competitive pricing.

With cost consciousness in mind, the Auto-ID Center has defined several different versions of the EPC spec -- 64 bits, 96 bits, and 256 bits. The diagram below details the 96-bit spec, which provides unique identifiers for 268 million companies. Each company can have up to 16 million distinct object classes, with 68 billion serial numbers within each object class.

Figure 4: 96-bit EPC Layout
Figure 4: 96-bit EPC Layout

Unlike a UPC bar code, EPC provides for the unique identification of any physical object in the world:

  • The header (8 bits) specifies the EPC's version number.
  • The EPC manager field (28 bits) provides the name of the enterprise (typically the manufacturer).
  • The object class field (24 bits) specifies the class of product (typically the stock keeping unit (SKU).
  • The serial number field (36 bits) uniquely identifies the individual item.
The Wal-Mart Effect
New technologies come and go; many never quite achieve popular traction. But RFID and EPC are likely to be different. Just a glance at the A-list companies that are partnered with the Auto-ID Center will give you an idea of how broad the interest is in these exciting new technologies. And one need only look back at past technologies to see the catalyzing effect of having major enterprises adopt them. The original patent for bar codes was issued in 1952. It then took twenty years for a standard to be approved; in 1982, only 15,000 suppliers were using bar codes. But by 1987, there were 75,000 suppliers using bar codes. What changed during those few years? Here's what: in 1984, Wal-Mart, the country's largest retailer, began using the technology.

Now, fast-forward to the present. Wal-Mart recently notified its top 100 suppliers that they must install RFID tags (for inventory tracking) on all cases and pallets of their products by January 1, 2005. And the remaining 12,000 suppliers are expected to follow suit by 2006. When Wal-Mart speaks, the retail industry listens. Clearly, RFID is a technology whose time has come.

Drilling Down

The core standards and technologies currently defined by the Auto-ID Center and its partners include:

  • EPC
  • RFID tags
  • Tag readers
  • Savant servers
  • Object Naming Service (ONS)
  • Product Markup Language (PML)
  • EPC Information Service (EPC IS)
Object Naming Service
Modeled after the Internet Domain Name System (DNS), the Object Naming Service (ONS) effectively matches the RFID tag to information about the tagged object -- by mapping the EPC number code (via IP address) to its associated information on a PML server.

Figure 5: EPC Network Summary
Figure 5: EPC Network Summary
Product Markup Language
Product Markup Language (PML) is XML-based, and intended as a universal standard for describing physical objects in the EPC network. PML is used to store such information as product composition, lot number, date of manufacture, proper usage, proper storage, and more. Using the information stored via PML and the EPC network infrastructure, a retailer can update information as it moves through the supply chain, set triggers to lower prices as expiration dates near, recall products, and so forth.

The Auto-ID Center's PML specification consists of PML Core and PML Extensions. PML Core is used to describe data directly generated by the EPC network infrastructure (such as RFID readers and temperature sensors). The PML Extensions are used to describe product and process-related information (expiration dates, shipping information, and so on.).

Figure 6: PML Core Auto-ID Sensor Data
Figure 6: PML Core Auto-ID Sensor Data
As its name implies, the Savant element in the EPC infrastructure performs a particular function -- and does it extremely well. With the sheer volume of data likely to be seen in some commercial settings, where an RFID reader may detect a hundred EPCs per second, the data challenges border on those found in processing telemetry. Thus, there has to be a filtering layer between the tag readers and the enterprise network.

The Savant sits at the leading edge of the EPC network, providing reader adapters (to accommodate different hardware providers), as well as functionality for smoothing data, correcting duplicate reads, providing business processing rules, and forwarding data up and down the infrastructure.

Figure 7: EPC Savant Architecture
Figure 7: EPC Savant Architecture
The current Savant specification defines the Reader Interface, Processing Modules, and the Application Interface. The Reader Interface specifies the interaction between the Savant and various reader devices, principally RFID tag readers. Processing Modules provide specific sets of features, which may be combined by the user to meet the needs of his/her application. The Savant itself is a container for Processing Modules. Processing Modules may interact with one another through APIs that they define. The Application Interface provides the connection to external applications -- existing enterprise applications, new EPC-specific applications, and even other Savants.

Sun Technology
As the company that recognizes "The Network is the Computer," Sun Microsystems is uniquely positioned to take a leading role in the Auto-ID revolution. In an "Internet of things," Sun's core strengths of security, scalability, and cross-platform compatibility between diverse networked systems have never been more essential. With J2EE, J2SE, J2ME, and JavaCard, Sun offers a complete spectrum of cross-platform computing environments, all the way down to the microchip.

On September 16, 2003, at the EPC Symposium in Chicago, Sun announced its newly formed enterprise Auto-ID initiative. Julie Sarbacker is the director of the company's new Auto-ID Business Unit, which will work aggressively with customers and partners to develop and deliver standards-based Auto-ID/EPC solutions. This best-of-breed list of Auto-ID partners already includes Alien Technology, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, ConecTerra, Gorilla Logic, Manhattan Associates, Provia Software, ThingMagic, Tyco Sensormatic, VeriSign, and Xterprise.

Sun's proposed Auto-ID solution architecture includes the Sun EPC Information Server (essentially the Sun ONE Integration Server and Auto-ID specific application components), and Sun EPC Event Manager (Savant), which are in development, and scheduled for release in 2004.

Figure 8: Sun's Proposed EPC Infrastructure
Figure 8: Sun's Proposed EPC Infrastructure
Critical Mass
The use of RFID in industry appears to be reaching critical mass. In addition to Wal-Mart's planned implementation of RFID by 2005, Gillette has reportedly purchased 500,000 RFID tags. With them, they hope to reduce out-of-stock items, cut labor costs, and reduce theft and counterfeiting. Proctor & Gamble's CIO, Steve David, has stated that the company expects to save $1.5 billion annually in supply-chain costs through the use of Auto-ID. Michelin, which manufactures 800,000 tires a day, is considering putting RFID tags in each of its tires. Delta Airlines is testing RFID on certain flights, tagging 40,000 customer bags to reduce loss and make routing more efficient. The U.S. military has placed tags on 270,000 cargo containers and trucks, tracking shipments through 40 countries. And just this month, the United States Acting Under-Secretary of Defense, Michael W. Wynne, spelled out an ambitious plan (a la Wal-Mart) to require its suppliers to use RFID tags on all shipments to the military by January, 2005. Visa is exploring putting RFID tags in smart cards, so people can conduct transactions without even having to open their wallets. The European Central Bank is even considering embedding RFID tags in individual Euro notes, to help combat counterfeiting and money laundering. With such tags in place, banks could count large amounts of money in a matter of seconds. But it doesn't take a civil libertarian to recognize the potential downside of such tag placement. Not only would the last bastion of anonymous commerce fall by the wayside, but a criminal with the proper technology could conceivably detect how much money a person was carrying.

With such potential problems, there is clearly a need for a secure technology in the Auto-ID space. The individual players and devices within an Auto-ID network must be verified and trusted -- yet the Auto-ID Center's specifications do not address a security technology. But here again, Sun/Java technology is perfectly positioned, having been designed since its inception with networked security in mind.

New Ways of Thinking
To meet the needs and challenges of the burgeoning "Internet of things," developers will need to change their notions about what a networked device is -- and how it can be used to provide compelling and profitable services. In short, it's time to think outside of the PC/handheld box.

Sun's John Fowler quantifies this evolution in terms of two "megatrends." "Megatrend number one, is that reduced costs have brought with them the viability of connecting almost anything to the network," he explains. "And megatrend number two is that this ubiquity of access will make it so that people's notions about what they interact with will change dramatically. As an application developer, you have to sit back and say, if everything is connected to the network, how will that change the way I process information?"

A perfect example of this new way of thinking is found in tagging pharmaceuticals. The obvious use of such tags would be for inventory control. But more forward-thinking developers have already envisioned a hospital application that would tag patients and medications -- making them both implicit devices on the network. An RFID tag reader would detect both objects, allowing the dispensing of that medication only to approved patients.

Scaling will be another major development concern in the Auto-ID space. "In the PC world, there's generally just one device per user," adds Fowler. "But when you're putting tags on every package of pharmaceuticals, and on every pair of blue jeans, you have to think on an entirely different scale. It becomes necessary to map a universe of millions, or even billions, of things into a much smaller network of things that have an IP address."

With some Auto-ID adoption deadlines little more than a year away, the business opportunities are clearly already here. ConnecTerra, a partner company in the Auto-ID Center, is concentrating its development efforts on the Auto-ID space. Believing that in the next decade, tens of billions of autonomous devices and assets will be connected to the network, the company wants to help facilitate this revolution. ConnecTerra provides Java technology-based software infrastructures for what they call the "aware enterprise," allowing companies to connect in real time to distributed devices, and integrating into back-end operations.

"We define an aware enterprise as a business that has a visibility and understanding of what's going on in its overall operating environment," says Dave Douglas, ConnecTerra's founder and CEO. "Enterprise computing is within the four walls of the business. Web computing extends out to people through browsers. But the real untapped opportunity is in providing information about what's going on in stores, warehouses, trucks, and customer sites, and then being able to factor that information into your business decisions."

In addition to developing Auto-ID infrastructure software, ConnecTerra is targeting what they see as the need for "remote services" in the networked device space. "There's already so much smart equipment out there," says Douglas. "In hospitals, doctors and nurses don't necessarily understand the ins and outs of how to debug the equipment they use." As devices like CAT scanners become increasingly networked, there is the opportunity to remotely monitor and maintain such equipment.

And the need for remote services will become all the more imperative as networked devices continue to expand in manufacturing, the supply chain, and retail. "The convenience store of the future will have a smart supply room, smart shelves, smart signs, smart gas pumps, and very smart point-of-sale terminals," says Douglas. "Some of this will be enabled by RFID, but also by sensor technology, wireless networking, and low-cost processing. But in order for this collection of complex devices to deliver reliable business value, it will be imperative to remotely manage and service it from the device manufacturer or the store headquarters. Relying on the store staff for monitoring and upkeep will not be an option."

Looking Forward
In the fast-paced Auto-ID space, new developments take place nearly every month. In September 2003, the Auto-ID Center premiered its version 1.0 specifications. Those standards are now being put through a ratification process, along with a question-and-answer period for center members. There is no firm timeline for this process, but the official specification documents should be released within the next month.

Meanwhile, the Auto-ID Center will soon be passing off its work to a next-generation overseer of the standards work. The original consortium out of MIT led the initial standards-development process, but it was never intended to function as an official standards body. The MIT center helped the member companies and research institutions develop the specifications. But they are not legally authorized, for example, to license and sell unique EPC numbers, or to take over the standards administration and compliance. For this reason, the Auto-ID Center has licensed its technology and specifications to EPCglobal, Inc., a non-profit entity formed by EAN International and the Uniform Code Council (UCC). EPCglobal will be selling the unique numbers, as well as taking over the standards administration and compliance. The group will issue documents and standards, and handle the overall commercialization of these standards as the EPC network enters the big time of mainstream commerce.

The Auto-ID Center web site will provide updates in the coming weeks as to the 1.0 specifications, as well as the work of EPCglobal. In the meantime, the site currently offers a free beta version of the center's Savant software (requiring Red Hat Linux 7.x Intel, PostgreSQL 7.1 and above, JDK 1.4.1 and above, and Tomcat 4.0.3 and above).

The site also offers an online "Auto-ID Calculator," to allow you to gauge the value of Auto-ID to your business (note: plan to allow 20 minutes).

See Also
Auto-ID Center

Sun Auto-ID Site


Auto-ID Center's Savant Software

Auto-ID Center's Online Tool to Calculate the Value to Your Business

Auto-ID Center's Version 1.0 Specifications (soon to be provided)

Uniform Code Council (UCC)

EAN International


EPCglobal FAQ

Sun ONE Application Server

Sun ONE Identity Server

Sun ONE Integration Server


GE Medical Systems Monitoring Astronauts

"Networked" Redwood Trees

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