April 2nd, 2014

The Next Big Thing is Small

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The Next Big Thing is SmallOne of the challenges facing the tech community is the addition of tens of billions of Internet-connected devices over the next few years. Currently, this Internet of Things (IoT) is expected to grow from 20 billion connected devices in 2015 to 40 billion in 2020.

That’s a Lot of Things
Estimates vary widely but most agree we have something less than 10 billion connected devices today including computers, handhelds, cars and controller devices such as SCADA and others. So, adding tens of billions more in just a few short years is definitely going to present some challenges.

A Lot of Little Things
And – if you start to think about wearables, RFID and micro/nano-size items, you realize that billions of these devices are going to be quite small. Not just physically but also in terms of capability and capacity. These devices will not have the power or flexibility of a laptop or even a handheld mobile phone.

These new members of the “connected community” will be tiny, single-purpose, low-power devices that do one thing and do it well. And it is likely that the program-ability of these devices will be limited. You might be able to flash the memory or even tweak configurations but a good number of these devices will not be hosts to custom code the way Web servers and handhelds are today.

Yet, we still need these devices to work together – even if only to publish device data, consume data from others devices and react to outside stimulus (lights on/off, heat, air movement etc.) So, how will we do that? How can we get things to interact with each other?

Step-by-Step Programming
Most developers today write “code” by stringing long lists of imperative statements together into a coherent set of instructions for machines. To most developers “programming” is just that – providing step-by-step instructions. This means we take on responsibility for any mishaps along the way, whether they occur due to problems inherent in the instruction set or due to unexpected events outside the instruction set, such as other devices not responding to our requests or sending us unexpected data. Doing this on tiny devices with limited capacity and ability is going to be a problem.

Luckily, there is another way to “program” these devices.

Rules, Not Code
We can also use a rule-based approach to programming. In this paradigm, programmers establish a set of coherent rules that tell the device how to respond to outside stimulus (“if the lights are on do X else do Y” or “if the motion detector reports true then turn on the light” etc.) And that is all you do; you write simple rules and leave the device to its own…. well, devices.

This means “programs” are much smaller (just a set of rules), easier to debug and easier to safely modify. It also means the devices themselves don’t need to do a great deal of work in order to “act” according to the rules.

That’s what I mean by small. The code will be small; the code will be rules.

How Does That Help Us with IoT?
It seems unlikely that we’ll be able to “program” billions of devices to safely and successfully interact with each other if we have to constantly provide step-by-step instructions on how each one operates and how they all interoperate. Instead, we’ll rely on simple devices each of which does one thing well and makes its action history available (as a stream of data, occasional dumps etc.) to other authorized devices.

It is also important to keep in mind that these devices will not be “phoning home” asking servers for guidance on how to proceed. The amount of traffic that tens of billions of new devices might generate if they need to constantly get instructions from distant servers would be massive and a huge waste of time and bandwidth. Instead, most IoT devices will act on their own, making decisions in real time, using the rules provided to them.

So, This is a Big Deal, Right?
This way of thinking about how devices will work and how we will “program” them is a big change for many developers. But not all of them: There are people today who build “low-level” device handlers and other things that do pretty much what I describe here. Motion detectors, security systems etc. all operate on this model (simple rules executed in real time). The difference we’ll see in the near future is that more of us will need to start designing and coding for devices that use this rule-based model.

But yes, this is a big deal.

By the way, I see quite a number of people building “Internet of Things” apps and models still assuming that the devices will be high-powered, fully-programmable computers similar to today’s handhelds and laptops. This is a mistake. While there may be some IoT devices with that profile, I suspect it will be a very small minority of the projected 40 billion devices.

So, start thinking ahead. Start planning for a new way to program devices. Those who start working like this now will have a jump on their peers and competitors. And there is good reason to start contemplating this right away. Rule-based systems will require different training and even different tooling. Think about how this will affect the “test-driven development” movement and related practices. And that’s just one example.

Are There Examples of This “New” Kind of Programming?
Yes, there are. And I’ll pick up that thread in a future post.

(This post, which was originally published on my personal blog, covers material from my recent talk at the API Strategy Conference in Amsterdam. You can see the notes from my talk online, along with the slides and related videos.)

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