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OpenHAB Aims to Bring Open Source and Local Control to IoT?

OpenHAB Aims to Bring Open Source and Local Control to IoT?
by Tom Simon on 02-02-2015 at 7:00 pm

The predominant model for IoT sensor data flow is for data collection on the device and data storage, analysis and access in the cloud. By cloud, I mean that particular vendor’s servers. This is true for Fitbit, Nest, Dropcam,Trace Snow (my favorite skiing app), Smart Things, etc. If you look up IBM’s presumptuously named Internet of Things Foundation, you will see that it is mainly an effort on their part to drive adoption of their cloud backend for IoT applications. The same is true for the Intel push with Edison. The development kit includes access to the Intel Cloud-based Analytics service.  It’s understandable that the cloud can be used for heavy lifting with IoT applications. But the cloud can also be used to lock in customers and block competition. I took a quick look at the websites for several prominent IoT devices and they all offer an API for linking devices. This is good. So for instance, when I go hiking I can connect my Fitbit to my Endomondoand get improved information about my activity. Fitbit tracks my steps, but has no GPS. Endomondo is an app on my phone that can tell me my route, distance, elevation, etc. Together I can get a better picture of my activity.  However when I have my Fitbit right next to my phone it seems counterintuitive that I cannot sync it unless I have an internet connection. With all of these devices being dependent on the vendor cloud service, we are subject to their reliability and even to their very existence. If one of the above companies were to close their doors, I’d have a ‘brick.’ This is close to what is happening to the buyers of the Revolvhome automation hub after the company was bought by Google/Nest.  This raises the existential question of who ‘owns’ the device. What if they decide I have violated their terms of service? Can they unilaterally cause my device to become a lump. Kai Kreuzer, project lead of the Eclipse Smart Home Project, has an excellent slide that illustrates the present situation.  When it comes to your house, odds are that you will have multiple vendors providing the devices. I have a wifi-connected stereo receiver with airplay. My TV has Wifi and an app. If I add smart lights, a Nest thermostat, security webcams, alarm system, garage door opener and other things, I most certainly will have an interoperability problem. Estimates are that our houses will have hundreds of connected things in the not too distant future. Major manufacturers are already producing these products in volume. You can find them at Home Depot, Lowes and online. Lowes even has its own line of home control products called Iris. Some of the companies manufacturing smart home products include big names like Philips, GE, Leviton, and Schlage. These are light bulbs, wall switches, door locks, water flow sensor, leak detectors, motion sensors, etc. The list goes on, with more coming every day. There are standards for these home automation devices such as Z-Wave, or ZigBee, but things are still in the early days. We also have Insteon, wifi based devices such as WeMo and more. Most these devices come with their own app or remote control, and probably an internet based service. There is a movement to consolidate these with hubs. The most common of them are made by Smart Things or Wink. Even the office supply company Staples offers one. And they mostly also use a cloud based service provided by their vendor. One notable exception is the very successful Kickstarter project called the NEEO.  With the cloud based hubs, there is still concern for availability, security, and privacy. Let’s say your internet connection fails or the hub vendor has an outage, your security system will be off line or your door locks won’t be accessible. These systems know when you are home and away. If Wink or Smart Things has a security breach, then hackers could find out when you are not home. And, incidentally the only way you will find out if they have a security breach is if they tell you about it. There is a grass roots initiative to provide local control for these devices and systems. This is analogous to what happened with computer hardware and operating systems. We are witnessing a recapitulation of these earlier technology waves. The advocates of open and locally controlled devices such as Kai Kruezer, argue that innovation is fueled by open systems. He started the OpenHAB project, which stands for Open Home Automation Bus. It is a software package that can run on an open hardware platform like the Raspberry Pi. It is gaining momentum, but is not anywhere near to being a consumer option yet. OpenHAB has spawned the Eclipse Smart Home project. Many software developers are familiar with the Eclipse Foundation as an organization that facilitates major open source software development tools and projects. OpenHAB and the Eclipse Smart Home project will be very important for the future of the Internet of Things. Kai Kreuzer has a slide that calls for an Intranet of Things. Then cloud can then be used for things like back up and for providing off site connectivity where it is called for and makes sense. They are proposing a software architecture and helping to build a portable stack based on it. It will allow new devices to be easily integrated. Around these devices there will be code to support events from sensors. There are four components in the Eclipse Smart Home architecture: connectivity, automation, user interfaces and persistence.  Hackers, makers and home hobbyists are already busy applying OpenHAB. They are using open source hardware and radios to build their own hubs. There is even one enterprising hacker who figured out how to root the low cost cloud based Wink hub and replace its firmware with the OpenHAB code. The Wink hardware has a compact package that includes a processor along with WiFi, ZigBee, Z-Wave interfaces. We are in the pioneering days of this technology and it will serve us well to question the architectures that businesses are promoting. If consumers ask for local control of their devices they can push the industry in that direction. Hopefully the traditions of open hardware and software will prevail, like it has for the PC and for Linux.


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