Cisco CTO explains the "Internet of Everything"

Padmasree Warrior, Cisco's Chief Technology and Strategy Officer. Credit: Cisco

Cisco today announced plans to acquire Ubiquisys, a privately held British company that creates public-access small-cells -- miniature base stations that let wireless service providers expand connectivity to locations that are otherwise hard to reach, particularly indoors.

According to Padmasree Warrior, the company's Chief Technology and Strategy officer, the acquisition fits into Cisco's vision of the "Internet of Everything," where billions of connected devices provide a continuous stream of real-time data that can power all kinds of decisions.

For that to work, devices must be connected all the time, no matter where they are. "If you look at traditional cellular technology, 3G or 4G, having it inside the building is always a challenge. Whereas Wi-Fi works very well in local buildings." Ubiquisys technology will help "bring those two together," Warrior told CITEworld.

The Internet of Everything -- or Internet of things, as it's more commonly called -- has been a big theme for Cisco lately. Warrior told us that Cisco sees it as the third major era of the Internet.

The first era of the 1990s was mostly about moving commercial transactions online, with big e-commerce giants like Amazon and eBay and Google search advertising replacing many less efficient forms of offline advertising. The second era added immersive collaboration -- social sharing through sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, and collaboration through services such as Skype and Cisco's own WebEx.

"This next decade will be about the digitization of society," says Warrior. "It's not going to replace other two, it's an additive thing. The internet of things is about sensor networks, machines communicating with other machines, and lots of data being created by this usage." 

She says that the trend is being driven by three main factors: 

  • The mainstreaming of sensors. "We always had sensors, it kind of started in the 90s with RFID tags for tagging things and tracking things." But the technology has become more prevalent as the sensors and related processors have gotten smaller, more power efficient, and cheaper. "We can put more compute power, more memory into the edge as well as back in the cloud, into the data center. All of this driving the capability of  machines to communicate with other."
  • Cloud computing. Distributed computing makes it possible for companies to store and analyze the massive amounts of data being tracked by all these sensors.
  • The migration of everything to IP networks. The switch to IPv6, which increases the number of IP addresses so that every device in the world can theoretically have its own, is key here. "We expect to have 50 billion things connecting to network by 2020, going up from 10 billion now.... so IPv6 becoming extremely critical."

Cisco has an interest in promoting the Internet of things, and IPv6 specifically, as it will encourage businesses and service providers to make infrastructure upgrades -- including, perhaps, new Cisco equipment. But Warrior gave us a good real-world example as to why businesses might want to invest in this change.

"The biggest challenge for most retailers is how to get customers to physically come into store as more online shopping is becoming prevalent," she explained. But if retailers can push electronic coupons to users based on their interests, then know when those users come into the store, that can have a direct effect on sales.

"I know if I pushed a coupon to you, I give you an alert to your mobile device, you can go straight to that product and pick it up, and pay from your phone if you don't want to wait in line. To do that, you need all those things I described" -- a way to collect data about who your customers are, detect when they walk into the store, and take specific actions.

As businesses seek out these kinds of scenarios, the role of IT will continue the shift that started a few years ago with consumerization, says Warrior.

"The world of IT thus far has been about providing connectivity tech, allowing apps to run securely in client-server model.... Now it's much more of this broker kind of role for IT. There will be lots of devices, deployed from the cloud -- not just smartphones, when I say devices I also mean sensors. If you're a retail business and you have wireless access points and sensors keeping track of which customer came where, there's a lot of data, a lot of analytics that you as a businessperson now need. IT becomes a broker of technology." 

Eventually, she speculates, IT could even provide a catalog of various different services for business units to choose from, and let each business unit pay only for what they consume.

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