Cloud Services are Hard to Avoid

Cloud services are a popular model, because the manufacturer can deliver a consumer grade product at a relatively low price, in order to sell you subscription services. This isn’t all nefarious – there are some real time saving advantages to that business model. The convenience of buying a cloud service versus setting up a more technically difficult local service, or the stability or out-of-the-box functionality of a company with profit motive can result in a more finished product than when you build your own smart home network .

But sometimes for smart technology to do what you want it to do, you have to understand the nuts and bolts, so you can take these different parts and put them together into a system that is greater than the some of its parts. This may not mean a local system is more stable than a cloud service, but it can eliminate the need for an internet connection or reliance upon the manufacturer for support.

There are users who embrace the cloud and focus on internet security and that is a perfectly reasonable path to take, but there is also a smaller but healthy contingent of residential and commercial users who under no circumstance want smart devices and their companies spying on the network. While sometimes the local hardware can be cheaper, by the time you put in the programming, the local device will cost a little more and might be even a little less functional than its cloud counterparts. 

But there aren’t too many products out there for energy management, and to some extent it is a project that needs to be designed and built custom to the particular jobsite, so it can make sense to build a local energy controller. 

Now, a local device can still use wifi for wireless local communication. That can be a completely isolated wifi network on its own hub or antennae, or it can share the existing wifi, or most high end wifi routers can issue a separate virtual network, called a VLAN, for the smart wifi devices. We don’t have time today to talk in depth about network security issues, but it all comes down to password management and inevitably some user is going to want to connect to both the smart home network and the normal building internet and potentially bridge the two networks together. These points of connection can even be intentional – dedicated security gateways can be installed to monitor and control these points where the literal internet cable comes into the building. Well, we will have to talk about that further in another time and place.

But even Amazon and Google are working on getting their devices to store enough data on them locally to enable offline functionality, which means that some cloud devices do have local functionality. That’s not that’s not uniform across the board. But how often do you actually lose the internet anyway? 

Whereas backup power management begs for local communication. The internet might have failed because of bad weather. Adding a UPS system to the energy manager is not a bad idea. We’ll get to that later. For now, let’s simply agree there are a few reasons why an energy controller should be a local device. 

Turning your home into a living computer creates opportunities for hacking. A cloud connection can be hacked on the other end, which cedes up some user privacy inherently. But to some extent cloud services are inevitable. Voice command services are in demand – these can be local, but the local voice command services are being bought up by smart product developers, such as Sonos with Snips. Stanford has an open-access voice command service called Almond that is privacy oriented but it still requires more computing power than what most tiny computers are capable of running on their own. A local device might be capable of running a few voice commands, but inevitably the smart intelligence is going to be outsourced to a heftier machine. If you want a $40 thermostat to have voice features, it’s going to use a cloud service.

Voice commands are valuable – they promote health safety and welfare. They also promote laziness and comfort. You can get into bed and then turn the lights off rather than actually flicking the switch on the wall. Which to some might be ridiculous but for those of us who can’t keep the TV remote in the same place, being able to talk to your television to turn it on and off is quite wonderful. Voice commands are convenient and then from a disability standpoint voice commands can be liberating. One emerging smart application is enabling the elderly to live in their homes longer, because computers can automate some of the essential tasks such as locks, keys, and even speaking.

Getting voice commands onto devices that don’t have them already built in is what the “internet of things” technology is supposed to do, and it is actually easy to do. You don’t need to do much programming. Basically as long as the cloud service is compatible with the smart hub, then it is a matter of password management. Permission is given both within the cloud service software and the smart hub software, after which google or amazon or whomever sucks in all the smart devices from the hub into their platform (or vice versa), and the end result is the basic commands issued from the hub, like turning on or off a lightswitch or television, now become voice activated commands within Alexa or Google. It almost feels like magic.

One of the cutting edge features of smart homes is facial recognition. People can be disappointed by facial recognition because it requires so much computing processing power. It’s not an instant response that people expect with their sensors, and so facial recognition is likely going to be a cloud service. What I’m saying is that for those comfortable with cameras inside their homes, where facial recognition can be used for really advanced automations based on who is in the room, keeping the smart network local without any kind of cloud interaction is not be practical. And while  a simple local smart home service that is custom built doesn’t need to have privacy issues oriented with cloud services, a local service can still benefit from online interconnectivity whether it’s bringing in voice services or facial recognition or even just remote monitoring if you want to check in on your smart home when you’re away from the house. In most circumstances, you’re going to want an internet connection even with a local network. It’s hard to avoid.

[End of Transcript… for now… stay tuned]

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Posted May 12, 2020 by John Cromer in category "Smart Home

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