Babel Buster Network Gateways: Big Features. Small Price.
EMAIL INTERVIEW – Tony Marshallsay and Ken Sinclair
After working on development of a PRT system and automated warehousing in Germany, Tony Marshallsay (CEng, MIMechE) spent many years in the Middle East, designing and supervising construction of building services, specialising in HVAC, BAS and related digital systems for hospitals, hotels and high-rise, mixed use developments. Now retired, he is interested in developments in BIM, IoT and space technology. He is also a STEM Ambassador.
Sinclair: Tony, your tweets show you're not in favor of this system for sending data over power lines, when we both know people have been doing it for more than 30 years. Would you like to explain why?
right, Ken, about the time; but the ICT world has moved on considerably
over that period. Back then, we were talking about using the earliest
PCs to send signals over a home power network to switch individual
"smart" outlets ON and OFF; and "high end" meant being able to dim a
lamp, which was easy then, because the bulb was incandescent, and
nobody cared much about phase-cut power control causing RF
interference. Today, it's a whole different ball game.
Quickly drawing a veil over the CFL
affair, we now have LED lighting. That doesn't just permit dimming but
also color and hue change - in sync with what's playing on your stereo
or TV, if you want - and communication with any smart device that has
an optical sensor. So, for example, with IoP the selfie cam of the
smartphone lying on the bathroom shelf could stream music from an
IoP-enabled light fitting; but for upload the fitting would also have
to be Bluetooth-capable, and the phone would need it to be switched on.
But would you need that with a Wi-Fi network in your home?
not. It all depends on how good your Wi-Fi coverage is.
Modern construction, which includes a lot of metal - steel rebar or mesh in concrete and GI framework for dry walls - can often throw up dead areas, which you can cure by buying extra signal boosters that plug into wall power outlets. With IoP, you would need to buy a number of devices looking like one of those plug-in adaptor blocks with duplex power outlets and a couple of 5V DC charging connections:
Internet anywhere you can plug into a
power outlet is a good reason for regular folk to be interested in IoP.
You say: "regular folk." That gives the impression that you think it's
not going to be useful outside the home?
Marshallsay: I said as
much in a tweet, mainly for security reasons. Technically, I'm
satisfied that there isn't a problem; and that's why I think it will
take off - but only in areas where data security isn't a critical or
even significant factor.
Marshallsay: Well, the
obvious one is large retail stores, which have open-plan floors with
many different types of goods displayed all over. There's generally
overhead department signage; but the individual goods only have signage
- description and price placards - at their actual location.
There has been a lot of talk about using
Bluetooth beacons for "indoor GPS" to locate people's smartphones and
guide them to what they've searched for. They would likely need more
power than could comfortably be supplied by a Power over Ethernet (PoE)
data connection, meaning they would need to be plugged into a power
line and have a separate wired or wireless (Zigbee or EnOcean)
connection. If IoP-enabled, they would only need the power socket.
Once a beacon had paired with a
customer's smartphone, it could send travel directions to the store's
app on the phone to guide the customer to the searched-for goods by the
easiest route. The app would then use the phone's regular camera to
recognize what was being looked at and show the usual placard
information in a pop-up dialog or as an overlay.
But the biggest advantage for stores
could be downsizing of the present "cash and pack" areas, which often
have long queues at busy times, by using "card only" tills all over the
floor, plugged into regular floor or pillar power outlets and
accompanied by small caches of branded tote bags, saving customers the
present long walk and wait at the central facility.
That sounds good - but you don't think IoP is going to be useful for
Marshallsay: No, I
don't. I've discussed my concerns about electrical interference - the
sort you get from poor, burned, or sticky make/break contacts - and the
ease with which hackers could gain access with the people at enModus.
They say that they have all sorts of proprietary hardware circuitry to
deal with the interference, and will rely on very strong encryption to
overcome the hacking access problem. They also say they have had test
installations operating in the field for some considerable time.
While I am prepared to accept that, in a
well-run commercial or government office with good O&M of the
business equipment, the electrical interference might not be too much
of a problem; once the make/break contacts in something simple, like a
kettle or coffee pod machine, start to wear, the potential for multiple
spikes or trips increases. And there will always be surges, however
small, when things like phone chargers are switched on and off, or
plugged in and out.
As for encryption, it doesn't matter how
strong you make it; if somebody really wants to break it, they will.
And it doesn't have to be done in real time. All that has to happen is
for someone to tap into the traffic, record a load, then take it away
and decrypt it offline, at leisure. That happened a while ago with some
Eastern European diplomatic comms. Being able to plug your data
recorder in anywhere just makes the job a whole lot easier - "a walk in
So, what do you propose instead?
Marshallsay: I'm fond
of the racing phrase: "Horses for courses"; and I don't think IoP is
the right horse for the sensitive data course.
It can overcome interference by IP
retransmission; but if there's a lot, it becomes very inefficient. And
because it makes hacking access too easy, it's imperative to go for an
existing, much more secure system using Ethernet coax, CAT 6 or fiber
optic cable. Any of these severely reduces the number of potential
access points, which are either clearly visible, so nefarious
connections should be easily noticed, or tucked away above ceilings,
inside walls, or within comms cabinets or plant rooms with restricted
access. And while it's difficult to jumper electrical data cables in
order to cut in and make a tap, it's not impossible to do it reasonably
quickly. Doing the same with fiber optic cable would be nigh impossible.
Okay. That's pretty clear. For the benefit of our readers, what would
you say is the bottom line?
Marshallsay: IoP will
be great for the home, and for many non-critical commercial and
institutional applications. But for any application handling sensitive
data - whether industrial, commercial (BIM), financial (Stock trading)
or political/diplomatic - forget it, because the potential for negative
RoI is huge: you would be investing a load of hard cash for the system
hardware and software licenses, only to facilitate industrial,
financial or political espionage which could cause way bigger losses.
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