REDMOND, Wash. — Oct. 24, 2011 — Forget the dollar, yen or Euro. The new currency of choice is data. In February, the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism published findings on how much data exists in the world: As of 2007, all the devices in the world contained 295 exabytes of data. To put things in perspective, that’s 295 with 20 zeroes behind it.
The Internet has, of course, been the biggest contributor to this deluge. Every time someone conducts a search, posts a restaurant review online or books a flight, a new piece of information is generated. The vast majority of current data from the Internet is generated by people who intentionally go online, but according to MIT’s Dr. Abel Sanchez this dynamic is changing as connectivity becomes more pervasive and companies focus more on the potential of untapped data to help them become more efficient.
Sanchez is executive director of MIT’s Geospacial Data Center, and his expertise is focused on the creation of large-scale distributed computing systems, with an emphasis on melding the physical and digital worlds — a concept commonly referred to as the Internet of Things. In a recent presentation at Microsoft, he highlighted how the combination of pervasive connectivity and Internet-enabled embedded devices can enable the flow of an unprecedented amount of data throughout enterprise networks. This capability will allow companies to monitor data about factors such as customer behavior, machine diagnostics or signal strength.
As Sanchez points out, every single object has some sort of data related to its history, origin and status:
“We’re generating information through all these devices, through all these different industries, and all these different services. The challenge comes in gaining access to that information and creating an inclusive ecosystem where information can be exchanged,” says Sanchez.
The Internet of Things addresses that challenge by enabling businesses to collect that data and use it to help formulate business plans, allocate resources or optimize internal processes.
The Internet of Things Takes Shape
The concept of the Internet of Things is one that Microsoft has been actively involved in bringing to a reality, both through its product development and partnering with universities and research centers.
For example, Microsoft Research has been working with Johns Hopkins University, the University of San Paulo, the São Paulo Research Foundation and the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research to build the Atlantic Rainforest Sensor Network. The network is made up of roughly 600 remote sensors that monitor temperature, water vapor and solar radiation levels within the Brazilian rainforest on a minute-to-minute basis. Each month, the network records 18 million observations, which are recorded on flash memory and can be transmitted by radio wave.
Research efforts such as this have helped Microsoft identify the areas of greatest need and where it needs to fine-tune product development. The next wave of technology will be focused on helping companies access and harness vast amounts of data. To this end, the company is working on embedded device and data analysis solutions that will take advantage of pervasive Internet connectivity and the computational power of the cloud to create intelligent systems.
Microsoft’s vision of intelligent systems is derived from the fact that most embedded devices are now connected to the Internet, or have the capability to do so. And to get the most business value, the company says that an intelligent system must contain the following attributes: identity, security, connectivity, manageability, analytics and user experience.
Having an intelligent system of this kind in place will have significant business implications because each device can contain multiple sensors that provide information in real time. IDC Research forecasts that between now and 2015, the intelligent semiconductor market will grow at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14 percent. And intelligent system revenues CAGR will be 19% from 2010-2015.1
Mario Morales, IDC’s vice president of semiconductors and emerging markets research, has been watching this industry for 15 years, and he predicts the most significant change will take place in 2014 and beyond. But much of the technological potential is already in place to begin building intelligent systems. The retail and food industries have started using these systems for such things as tracking inventory. And overseas, cities such as Abu Dhabi and Singapore are incorporating intelligent systems into the utilities infrastructure to help manage growth over the long term.
Morales expects the impetus for intelligent systems to accelerate in other industries as more and more companies connect the dots between existing connected devices and the computing power they have in-house or in the cloud.
“It’s taken decades to establish the embedded market that exists today, but it’s going to see significant change over the next couple of years as we continue moving to more of an intelligent system paradigm,” says Morales. “And not only are we seeing the systems and the computing capabilities transform, but the network that connects all these embedded devices is changing dramatically as well.”
An End-to-End Solution: From Generation to Visualization
For its part, Microsoft’s approach to an intelligent systems solution is based on the Windows Embedded platform, which delivers the power of Windows and the cloud to specialized devices. Original equipment manufacturers use Windows Embedded’s platforms and tools to build devices that companies can then use to create a perpetual flow of real-time data from throughout the company.
Intertwined with the promise of this data’s potential is the challenge of gleaning meaningful information that can be acted upon — a feat that has been further complicated by the lack of the proper tools for managing embedded or intelligent devices, and controlling the flow of data.
Microsoft addressed this challenge earlier this year with the release of Windows Embedded Device Manager. In addition, the company is working on a technology code-named “Pontecchio” that will make the flow of data more predictable, efficient and affordable.
As Sanchez points out, harnessing data is not a new problem for businesses: “I’ve had numerous groups come through my office in the past two years, and every single one of them is asking ‘How do we handle all this data? How do we make sense of it?’”
With that in mind, Microsoft has also been hard at work on releasing data analysis and business intelligence tools that will help companies store, manage and analyze data. The most notable example is SQL Server 2012, scheduled for release in the first half of next year. Among the features this version will include is Power View, which allows users to view SQL data on a variety of devices and provides a rich experience for visualizing data.
Recently, Microsoft’s Chief Research and Strategy Officer, Craig Mundie, gave a group of students at Northwestern University a glimpse of what features such as Power View might look like in the future with advances in natural user interface and using machine learning to find patterns and correlations in large data sets, including weather data or health informatics.
Microsoft is already planning to add touch capabilities into Power View by the end of next year, so it’s clear the company isn’t standing still in helping customers find new ways to harness their data.
Says Sanchez: “The Internet of Things holds tremendous promise, but with it comes the expectation of faster, more informed decisions. And the tremendous amount of data can make it a challenge to identify what we care about. In looking for a solution, there are few companies that can offer one as multifaceted and complete as Microsoft.”
1 IDC, Worldwide Intelligent Systems 2011-2015 Forecast: The Next Big Opportunity, doc #230242, September 2011.