Building the Internet of Things network of the Future

Wienke Giezeman

Initiator of The Things Network

Posted on 22-05-2017

In August 2015, we started a movement to build the Internet of Things network of the future. Giving people hands-on experience with the LoRaWAN technology. Helping them hack and fiddle around with the Internet of Things.

We came up with the vision to build an open network without a single owner, a single point of control or a single point of failure. It all started by connecting 10 gateways in Amsterdam with a community of 10 businesses and 10 developers interested in IoT. Now, 18 months later, we have welcomed more than 16000 contributors from over 80 countries, together connected over 1000 gateways.

The realization of the network with the community has created a lot of use-cases. From measuring the quality of ocean water, to developing a tracker for hikers, to developing sensors warning citizens for floods. We are extremely proud to see these activities. You can imagine the joy of running this organization and seeing these concepts arise from what we built together.

The Things Network Communities around the world
The Things Network Communities around the world

One of the key focus areas right from the beginning is to make access to The Things Network as easy as possible. We created a prototyping board for developers to easily prototype their first use case. We launched The Things Network Labs, a place where you can find and share projects with the community. We created official documentation along with video tutorials to make the getting-started process even simple.

As more use cases are being built on top of the network, the demand for quality of service and control over the level of security has increased. As The Things Network community, we need to grow the network that can be used for prototyping as well as professional use. To accomplish this, we have been looking at ways to include more stability, reliability and resilience. Let us take you through our thought process while designing our new network infrastructure. After talking to the community on what they need from a network for the production level use cases, we identified the following requirements.

Requirements for a perfect Internet of Things network

A data network that does not lock you into a single vendor – Currently, many Internet of Things networks lock you into a single vendor or technology. They provide a silo which is very easy to consume, nice to get started, but your investment is tied to that platform. We want a different model. One that is easy to start and cost effective to scale, so that you can save time and money during application development. All this while still allowing you to choose how and where to run the network.

Low costs when you scale – A typical Internet of Things story starts with a future vision of 50 Billion connected devices by 2020, and ends with a subscription proposition of $1 per month per device. In most of the cases, this is just for connecting the device to the network, not for an end-to-end service. At scale, this is simply not working.

The ability to scale rapidly – When you make something which works, business wise you want to be in a position to respond to the rapidly growing user demand, nationally or even globally. You need easy deployment of devices, gateways and servers with support for scaling up and down in ways that are flexible and linear at the same time.

Control over the Quality of Service – Once the use case is in production and you have a customer that puts critical processes in your hands, it becomes crucial to ensure the application works and keeps working. The gateways and servers routing the valuable data need to run smoothly and reliably. Finally, you want to be in charge of the critical components, even after deploying your IoT solution.

Control over the Level of Security – Most Internet of Things technologies nowadays are safe but lack a secure end-to-end encryption. In many cases you can trust a third party to have access to your data (compare it to Gmail or LinkedIn who can access all your content). There are, however, cases where you want to guarantee end-to-end encryption in mission-critical situations or because the local law tells you to do so. If you need the data to go over private connections, this should be easy to configure on already deployed solutions.

Low maintenance costs - After setting up your sensor network, you decide to modify some logic because business rules change. Now you find out that the logic is embedded in 10 000 nodes you deployed a few months ago. Good luck telling your customer that you need to revisit each node to implement the change. You want to be able to do this remotely with over the air firmware updates.

When designing the network to meet these requirements, we kept our vision and context in mind. How can we meet the technical needs while complying with our core values? Let’s revisit them.

  • Open - Everyone has access to the network and can contribute to it.
  • Distributed - The core backend components of The Things Network can run across any domain. It is possible to contribute and leverage the global network and it runs anywhere at anytime, in a public or in a private environment.
  • Decentralized - The ownership of the network should be decentralized by involving as many parties as possible. These parties will collectively own the network and work together to operate and develop it.
  • Sustainable - The public community network becomes sustainable if there is a right balance between the number of members using and contributing resources to the network.

Working from this context we created our software architecture. You can read more in detail in the next article - The Things Network Technical Architecture.

We have a Forum topic to discuss in depth on how we can grow The Things Network. Please feel free to join in the discussion and in case you have any questions, we can discuss them during the AMA session. Click here to RSVP.