How will sensor networks integrate?

Sensors are too separate from the rest of the IT world

Stand-alone processes and networks that hail from the industrial, manufacturing, and facilities sides of the business are destined to merge onto the IT infrastructure.

In the radio frequency identification area (RFID), for example, companies like Reva Systems and Cisco are helping bring supply-chain tracking information collected by RFID tags into upstream ERP and other applications. They use controllers or switch/router blades, respectively, with middleware and IP communication to merge RFID reader networks with corporate Ethernet networks.

Similarly, "islands" of wireless sensor networks now can join the corporate IT infrastructure. One motivator is to use sensor data to help comply with overall operating regulations that span the facilities and IT disciplines.

For example, start-up Arch Rock has announced a US$4,995 wireless sensor network package that the firm says will allow companies to deploy, in an hour, sensor network pilots that integrate with enterprise applications in the form of Web services. According to the company, IT personnel can create custom applications for monitoring physical conditions without embedded programming. One application might be to granularly measure variations in temperature and humidity in the corporate data center to optimise conditions while minimising HVAC costs, says Roland Acra, Arch Rock CEO.

Wireless sensor networks today use long-life, low-power motes (tiny self-contained packages with processor, memory, collections of sensors, battery and mesh communications capabilities) to monitor physical and environmental conditions, such as the status of machinery in factories. Motes allow timely measurement readings under harsh conditions, such as in chemical plants and refineries, without wiring. Wiring can be expensive - if not impossible - in certain places, such as on noisy, vibrating oil rigs where pumps and compressors need continual monitoring. Motes operate, in part, as tiny wireless IP routers to alleviate the cabling burden.

Linking up to the RFID silo

As with the RFID infrastructure, sensor networks have traditionally been built, monitored, and managed as a single silo. As time marches on, the ability to gain contextual access to sensor measurements through a traditional PC screen should help enterprises improve safety conditions; lower costs of managing environmental conditions; comply with operational mandates; and open the door to new sensor-based applications.

Arch Rock's Primer Pack "extends the spectrum of people who can do something with sensors to anyone who knows Web services," says Acra.

Before, only niche programmers could build sensor networks and, to make changes to the network capabilities, "you had to go into the firmware to do it," he says.

Included in this start-up kit: six sensor nodes; a gateway server that translates embedded applications into Web services; a bridge node for communications between the gateway and sensors; and a Web services development environment.

Arch Rock is likely to be followed by competitors such as Crossbow, Emerson, Tendril and others.

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