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Under the vision of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, “the beginnings of the web was about trying to connect all kinds of devices,” noted Dave Raggett, a Fellow of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
These days, however, the W3C is attempting to bring together all the competing interests, protocols and standards to create recommendations for the next evolution of the internet, namely the Internet of Things (IoT).
The move toward collaboration was first sparked by Siemens, which in a 2014 workshop in Berlin, launched an interest group with the goal of bringing together major and minor IoT players to discuss pre-standardization. Following up on this work, the W3C formed the first official working group to create an identification extraction layer for IoT devices.
“When you look at the Internet of Things, and people are talking about things, temperature, environment, actions, turning the heater on, turning the sprinkler on, interacting with the physical world with a whole lot of standards, [it becomes] a bit of a mess for developers,” said Raggett, from his position as the technical lead for the Web of Things working group
A Common Language
So, how can the 80 enormous and small organizations — out of the 440 W3C member orgs — on group find enough common ground among limitless themes to create standards or recommendations?
Raggett said it’s all come down to semantics. While there can be a limitless amount of connected objects, they tend to have aspects in common, he explained. The vast majority of connected devices have some if not all of the following aspects:
- Objects with certain properties (like temperature.)
- Actions (like turning the heating on.)
- Events (when the temperature drops, turn it back on.)
- An owner.
- A vendor.
- A location.
Standardizing the IoT is all about finding the description of things. Raggett described the process as an attempt to: “Find a way of describing things in such a way too that developers don’t have to know about the details [or] underlying communication patterns,” he said.
The working group will partner with other organizations to discover how these abstractions fit in a particular approach. Participating organizations include:
“Those organizations obviously look after their own platforms and standards and then we have location standards that actually describe things in the actual location,” Raggett said.
Linked Data and Semantic Interoperability
To overcome fragmentation, the Web of Things working group looks to mimic what Berners-Lee did for the internet itself, by defining an abstraction layer for IoT platforms, protocols, data formats and communication patterns.
“The Internet introduced an abstraction layer which means that developers could create services end-to-end across networks without knowing anything about the networks or the technology,” Raggett said. “Abstraction layers are very powerful.”
How will it be organized? Certainly, application programming interfaces (APIs) were built to play a role in this identification extraction layer for applications for the interacting of things.
The application itself can contract with external information models based on Linked Data, the process of sharing data across the web. Using Linked Data means that developers have a common language to communicate in without having to know the underlying technology and networks. Here Linked Data acts as a cross-domain vocabulary for things’ descriptions.
Dimitri Van Hees, a Linked Data expert and co-founder of APIWise, explained:
“Like with the U.S. government right now, if you have one data set for ‘New York,’ it has the data set of ‘state, ’ and the value is ‘NY.’ You can use Linked Data to tell a machine and a human what something means. In the API community, people still try to reinvent the wheel on that part. They still try to create attribute names. If you always use exactly the same column names and title descriptions, we could possibly compare everything. But Linked Data actually solves the problem.”
Van Hees explains here how Linked Data is intuitive, semantic language use where, the machine will read “NY” as the state of New York, without a need for careful attention to column names.
“Linked Data is all about triples — Subject, Predicate and Object. If I am the Subject, and you are the Object, then the Predicate is talking to you right now,” Van Hees explained. “Everything is structured in triples. ‘Dimitri is talking to Jennifer.’ And all triples together make it possible to create graphs and decentralized data sets as long as you supply links. If I tell my neighbors in an hour, and I say I was talking to Jennifer, but they probably won’t know which Jennifer I am talking about, which is a lack of context. That’s what Linked Data solves.”
With this value in mind, the end goal of this W3C venture is to enable an open ecosystem of services because, as Raggett said, “We think the value will be in the services, not the devices themselves.”
Now, what is semantic interoperability besides a mouthful? According to Raggett, it’s about having “different services that are communicating but don’t have the same meaning.”
With a combination of Linked Data and interoperability through APIs, the W3C believes a consistency and fluency can be created across standards and platforms.
Haven’t heard of Linked Data? As Raggett said, “Linked Data is being increasingly used by companies though they don’t spend a lot of time talking about it.”
He said it “needs new standards for validation for semantic interoperability, we see a gap there. I think that web developers… are put off because they see the syntax and the communities are somewhat detached from what they are doing now.”
But he says the web does that now with web pages, pointing to Schema.org as “proven extremely successful.”
Where Is the Web of Things Headed Next?
The next step for the Web of Things working group? These big names are coming together into focus groups that work on certain areas like home automation, health care and smart cities. So far — since juggling these large corporations as well as small providers is a logistical challenge — each group has only had about three or four face-to-face meetings. The point of these in-person exchanges “PlugFests” is rather like the close of hackathons, where members show off how to use one brand’s things to interact with another brand’s things.
IoT system providers such as IBM, Siemens and Cisco already have proof-of-concept labs to show how this interoperability works, but now it’s up to W3C to take it to the next level, namely by attracting integrators like Accenture. Raggett said the end goal is “to to build confidence in the underlying approach by performing interoperability across companies.”
The end goal is certainly to develop a common vision or common standards across organizations, and then to explain it in W3C agreed-upon recommendations. The next milestone, due out the end of this year, will bring together 40 companies and standardization organizations collaborating over a re-release of a joint white paper on semantics for interoperability.
Raggett said that the original rendition is a relatively technical paper, but now they will be focusing on introducing the concept of semantic interoperability in a way that persuades engineers why the concept is important.
When you hear IoT, “People normally think about sensors, but it’s not just about that — the Web of Things is more general than the Internet of Things, it’s about connecting the physical part to services in the cloud. You can talk about sensors at the edge of the network, but how do we integrate services within organizations? We have different platforms with different vendors and different standards,” Raggett said.
He continued that companies want to increase their agility and competitiveness to make it easier for them to integrate both horizontally and vertically. He offered up the example of smart manufacturing which allows companies to move much smaller production runs and to create bespoke products, instead of the traditional assembly line. It’s about adapting and bring that adaptation up and down the whole organization, but also horizontally across the logistics and value chain.
But while everyone seemingly agrees that standards are a good idea, with these many heavy hitters involved, eyebrows can be raised.
“We have to be very careful to make the distinction between a communications protocol and a device vendor’s particular data format. Work needs to be done on both pillars, but it’s easy for standards bodies to say that it’s too proprietary and heterogeneous out here,” said Michael Campbell, CEO of Internet of Things platform Machine Shop.
While W3C’s venture still seems fairly young, the consortium is taking steps to bring the big and small players in the IoT space together and is confident that APIs are a great way to do it.
Feature image via Pixabay.
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