So, you’ve heard about the Internet of Things (IoT), and how it can save time and money while preserving your sanity. You may even be researching solutions and talking to suppliers who are throwing out terms—and they expect you to know how it all works and what it means.

But you may not know, so here’s a no-nonsense IoT glossary to help you navigate the basics. Every day, Monnit connects with people who are new to remote monitoring with the IoT. We thought a written-by-humans-for-humans glossary that explains commonly used IoT terms would be helpful.

  • Meet Monnit: Our wireless sensors act as the check engine light for business. Using IoT technology, our sensors save mom-and-pop butchers money, help protect facilities for multimillion-dollar enterprises, and are used by global franchises for food safety—to name a few applications.

Glossary of IoT Terms

Application Programming Interface (API)
An API is a go-between that enables a device or piece of software to communicate with other machines or applications to provide functionality or data access. APIs expedite machine or device implementation, so integration teams don’t need to write new code.

  • A simplified example of an API at work: Allowing IoT devices to share data they’ve collected with a company’s proprietary backend software or in-house monitoring systems.
As the name implies, an actuator is part of a machine that receives an input from a control system to move (actuate) another component. Actuators are categorized by the type of energy used to perform an action—common actuator types include hydraulic, pneumatic, electric, and mechanical. Actuator examples include hand wheels and stepper motors. Within the IoT, actuator activity can be collected by sensors for analysis.
Big Data
An exceptionally large set of data, often notable for being high velocity (data collection speed) and highly varied (e.g., videos, data points, and images). The computational analysis of big data enables businesses to discover trends or insights that help shape decision making and process automation.
Cloud Computing
Cloud computing means that a user is storing data and using programs via the internet—not their computer’s hard drive. Small businesses have begun favoring cloud-based services and software because of the potential to save time (log-in and start working) and money (no extensive IT support or equipment needed). Three commonly used cloud-based service types: Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).

  • Not-so-fun fact: The name “cloud” itself came from boring corporate flowcharts, in which servers, IT resources, and actions were represented by arrows, ovals, and diamonds until they reached the internet, which was typically represented by a cloud shape.
The migration to digital-based business operations. The business model is changed to provide new revenue sources and value-add possibilities via digital technologies.
The process of converting analog information into digital formats. In business, digitization takes traditional analog processes and achieves the same outcome with fewer resources via computer—without altering the actual process itself.
A tried-and-trusted system of interconnecting computers and other devices to create a local area network (LAN). Ethernet is also used in metropolitan area networks (MAN) and wide area networks (WAN). Over Ethernet cables, data flows between devices in a networking language (called a protocol). Internet is also typically delivered via ethernet cable.
Frequency hopping (Frequency-hopping spread spectrum of FHSS)
Frequency hopping is a method in which sending and receiving devices continuously “hop” to change frequencies in a predetermined order. Robust and reliable, hopping significantly reduces the chances of interference from other devices, jamming, or detection.

  • Famed actress Hedy Lamarr and avant-garde composer George Antheil invented FHS in WWII. The technology was used as a “Secret Communications System” to protect Allied forces’ signals from interception by Axis forces.
  • Within IoT and IIoT, frequency hopping offers a tremendous range, rapid data transmission, stability, and security. This flexibility enables a myriad of sensors and smart devices to coexist and operate as intended.
Gateway (Internet of Things Gateway)
A networked piece of hardware, software, or a hybrid of the two, gateways permit data flow in and out of networks. Gateways can manage traffic between two different network types because they can convert one protocol to another. This capability makes them vital for linking in-the-field devices, such as sensors or actuators, with monitoring software or a cloud platform.
To synchronize a system, a heartbeat is a signal periodically sent by a machine, device, or software to check-in with another piece of equipment or software. Sometimes also called a “check-in,” heartbeat frequency can typically be user-defined to conserve a device’s battery life or provide more frequent updates. Heartbeat examples:

  • Sensor heartbeat: how frequently the sensors check-in with the gateway.
  • Gateway heartbeat: how often the gateway communicates with the servers.
  • Aware state heartbeat: How often the sensor transmits to the gateway while in the aware state.
Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)
An extension of the Internet of Things (IoT), the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is the integration of sensors and actuators into an industrial environment. These devices collect machine data, environmental data, or process data, and transmit this data to a software program or a cloud platform. Data is used to optimize processes, manage assets, protect facilities and people, employ preventive maintenance, or prevent environmental damage (e.g., frozen pipes). Typically, sensors are mounted on machinery and relay information to a gateway, which transmits sensor data to monitoring software.
On-premises software (or on-prem software)
Licensed or purchased software that a company installs, runs, and manages in-house with its own IT resources (e.g., servers and firewalls). On-prem software enables firms to avoid cloud-based software for security reasons, to comply with corporate-issued mandates, or to operate in highly regulated industries (e.g., labs or research facilities). On-prem solutions are sometimes called “shrinkwrap” software.
Over-the-air updates (OTA or over-the-air programming)
Increasingly ubiquitous thanks to smartphones and newer vehicles, over-the-air updates provide a device with enhanced functionality and performance, an upgraded user interface, or greater security. Issued by the device’s manufacturer via cellular connection or Wi-Fi, OTA updates consist of updated code that’s typically encrypted for security. OTA updates are an efficient way to enhance security, usability, and performance for in-the-field devices, like sensors, that may be hard to access or may not have on-unit buttons or interfaces to manually initiate an update.
Power Over Ethernet (PoE)
Power Over Ethernet technology transmits both data and power to low-wattage devices, such as speakers, IP cameras, or sensors. PoE transmission via Ethernet cable is possible because data and power signals don’t share the same frequency. This flexibility enables PoE-capable devices to piggyback off of existing infrastructure, saving time and money. Devices can be located virtually anywhere, and scaling up a building’s Ethernet infrastructure is relatively simple and cost-effective versus installing additional electrical lines. In addition to flexibility, PoE offers enhanced safety and reliability by helping protect against overloads or poor installs.Common devices in commercial settings include wireless devices, Wi-Fi-capable devices, and internet protocol cameras.
Real-time computing (real-time or reactive computing)
Real-time systems process data as it is generated and can respond in milliseconds (sometimes even in microseconds) to external processes, conditions, or events. Operating within predetermined deadlines, real-time systems must receive, process, and return data quickly enough to impact the environment at that moment to be considered real-time. Common real-time system and deadline types:

  • Hard real-time systems that must operate and respond on deadline—failure could result in catastrophic system failure and loss, such as nuclear power plant systems.
  • Firm real-time systems are those in which not responding by deadline may cause system failure, but damage does not occur, such as video streaming.
  • Soft real-time systems are those that don’t respond by deadline yet continue to generate data. Not viewed as a failure, the system continues to run with diminished performance that’s deemed acceptable. An example is cellular communication.
Rooted in IEEE 802.15.4 specifications, ZigBee is an economical and efficient wireless technology that’s ideal for machine-to-machine (M2M) applications and IoT networks. Operating on 2.4 GHz globally, ZigBee transfers small bits of data using very little power, lending itself to wireless control and M2M and IoT sensor applications. ZigBee technology is widely used because it is reasonably robust, offers high levels of security and scalability, and can support many nodes.
Favored for home automation, Z-wave is a wireless communications protocol that operates in the 800–900 MHz frequency range. Via these low-energy waves, it enables smart devices to communicate and is often used in remote control applications.
An evolution of the first generation of wireless technology, second-generation (2G) technology enabled digitally encrypted phone calls, the integration of data service (allowing for SMS/text messages), and more efficient use of the radio frequency spectrum (accommodating more users per frequency band).
The third-generation (3G) of wireless cellular technology that enabled faster data transfer. 3G networks provide peak data rates of 144 Kbps; beyond voice calls, 3G ushered in a new era of mobile internet access. 3G also permitted video calls, mobile TV, and streaming.
A marked evolution of previous cellular technology, 4G (fourth generation) provides peak data ranges of 100 Mbps in wide area networks, and a minimum of 1 Gbps in fixed networks (e.g., hot spots). Increased data speeds enable mobile users to enjoy an even higher level of mobile web access that includes streaming high-definition TV and advanced gaming.