17 June 2011

The eco cloudy system thing ...

One of the bothersome aspects of coming to grips with new, popular shifts in technology is assimilating the barrage of terms and expressions that are introduced to convey the new concepts.

In theory at least, the cooked up buzzwords and catch phrases help us visualise unfamiliar technology using constructions of familiar words and phrases, but there's no accepted standard or agreed context.

It all gets resolved in the end, with a few expressions achieving common usage and dictionary status, and the losers cast onto the scrap heap – from the 'horseless carriage' to 'accumulator' and 'surfing' the internet, loads of perfectly descriptive terms (at the time) fade into obscurity.

If buzzwords are a yardstick for technological change, we're currently in the clutches of a whopper. Both mainstream and technical media is awash with talk of everything cloud based, technology that communicates in a mesh or sea of devices, and collections of internet 'things' formed into ecosystems. The expression generating engine is indeed in full swing.

In spite of the often cavalier use of the expressions, frequently in a dubious context, there's a solid thread of technological change that underpins it all. A broad way of defining that change is a merging of two previous technology revolutions: electronics and internet communications.

The result is electronic devices that no longer functionally exist as a single, contained entity. Rather, they are one element in a system that includes internet communications, web applications and company back end services – an ecosystem (environment with interactive, mutually dependent components), if you will.

That self supporting system can contain any number of devices that interact with internet based services or directly with each other. They form an 'internet of things', a 'web of devices', a 'connected environment' or whatever collective term you feel comfortable with. And the key enabling factor here is the internet infrastructure and the server resources it provides access to, or in popular parlance, the cloud.

Possibly the most abused and overused term in popular media, the 'cloud' and all its amorphous connotations lends itself to a wide range of application descriptions. Cloud based applications (software as a service), cloud data storage, dynamic cloud servers (configurable virtual hosts) all indicate a need for context when discussions turn cloudy.

Wading though the hazy terms, misconceptions and bandwagon baggage leads us to a revolutionary shift in technology that will change the way we live and work. While we can see the evidence in its current form (smart phones, Google apps, remote storage, etc), predicting where it will lead is far more difficult. Linear speculation leads to predictions of internet equipped refrigerators, air conditioners that phone home, clothes that report medical data and so on, but we really have no idea where this new connected world (the internet of things) will lead.

What we can be certain of is that the change is underway, and both industry and governments are responding. A recent report1 estimates that the number of connected products shipped will increase from the 2010 figure of 262million to 712m in 2015, pushing the global number of connected devices that exist to more than 2billion units. From a national perspective, the UK's Technology Strategy Board has recently launched a £5m initiative focused on promoting the internet of things (and all its potential) to UK business.

What we can also predict, and to some extent see underway, is the change in the way these new generation electronic products are designed. It's no longer sufficient to design a connected device in isolation. Including the electronics and embedded software that enable connectivity is one thing, but implementing the required cloud based servers, applications and back end services is beyond the realm of traditional electronics design.

As the design of electronics and cloud based ecosystems merge, we need a new wave of design tools and methodologies that bring the two worlds together in a single product development environment. A modular approach that harnesses configurable, off the shelf cloud applications and services is just one way forward, but however the design solutions evolve, you can be sure that the technology shift into the cloud is real, it's here, and we need to respond.

Just don't get too derailed by all the word play.

1 Harbor Research.

Rob Evans, Technical Editor, Altium Ltd

Supporting Information


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