Machine-to-machine (M2M) is an umbrella term used to describe the exchange of information between networked devices with little or no intervention from humans.

There has been much talk in recent months of the Internet of Things (IoT) and it is M2M that is the underlying technology behind the concept. Gartner recently predicted that by 2020 there would be in excess of 26 billion connected devices around the globe, excluding computers, tablets and smartphones.

M2M is nothing new; throughout the 20th century telemetry was used as a means of transmitting operational data. However, as wireless technologies have evolved, so too have the applications for M2M. The technology is now being used in innovative ways across almost all verticals, in both consumer and business markets.

The anatomy of M2M

While each M2M deployment will have its own nuances, there are three basic stages that almost all solutions have in common.

Collection of data (the device): This is the endpoint in the anatomy of M2M. The device is often a sensor and is used to gather data.

Transmission of data (the network): In order to communicate the data gathered, devices must be connected to some form of network. This might be a short-range network such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, or a wide-area network such as GPRS, 3G or LTE.
Assessment of data (the application): As is the case with all raw data, it only becomes useful once processed. Due to the costs involved with integrating M2M data into existing platforms, these are often standalone applications provided by the M2M vendor.

Exciting applications

Remote healthcare
Sir David Nicholson recently challenged the British National Health Service to find £20 billion of efficiency savings by 2015. This may seem an insurmountable task; however, M2M has the potential to help by drastically reducing costs and, at the same time, improving patient care.

While there are many examples of applications for M2M in healthcare, remote monitoring is one that stands out as a solution that drives efficiency and improves quality of service. The ability to track and monitor patients remotely allows for much earlier discharges than would otherwise be possible.

The knock on effects of this are two-fold. First, the freeing up of hospital resources; beds, which are in short supply in hospitals across the country, are available for patients with only the most acute needs. Rather than spending time tending to non-critical issues, staff are able to refocus their efforts where they matter most.

The second benefit is that patients who might otherwise be resigned to a hospital bed are able to receive care from the comfort of their own homes. For those with long-term or terminal illnesses, this can have a staggering impact on quality of life, particularly if they live far away from the healthcare facility in question.

Energy utilisation
As enterprises begin to find their feet on the back end of a global recession, the pressure to streamline costs is high. At the same time, both regulators and customers are increasingly scrutinising the actions of businesses when it comes to social responsibility. With these two factors in mind, M2M has a significant role to play in the energy and utilities sector.

Whether its one building or one thousand, M2M allows businesses to understand energy consumption in granular detail.

Supply chain and consumables management
The supply chain has always been connected to some extent – hence the name. Vendors such as SAP and Oracle have kept the chain well oiled for decades by providing cargo-tracking solutions; but the process of tracking was rarely done in real-time and goods still managed to find themselves falling off the grid.

M2M promises to revolutionise supply chain management by allowing for real-time tracking of cargo, regardless of where it is in the supply chain.

Manufacturers who rely on the sale of consumables such as those found in medical devices, printers and packaging equipment can also benefit from M2M. For example, should a printer run low on toner, M2M could initiate a transaction to ensure the user is resupplied. This just-in-time delivery model not only improves customer satisfaction but leads to more efficient inventory management.

Drawbacks and concerns
With new and exciting applications for M2M being discovered all the time, fresh concerns are also arising and chief amongst them is security. Many existing M2M solutions were built for a different paradigm to the one that exists today. They were engineered to function behind a secure network, rather than to transmit data via a public one.

The fact that the majority of endpoint M2M terminals are largely unattended is a security concern in and of itself.

Encryption obviously will play a key role in alleviating security concerns but it is a resource-intensive task; a fact that does not bode well for low-powered sensors.

Data protection is another drawback when looking at the proliferation of M2M. The current EU data protection framework does not necessarily have the appropriate provisions in place to ensure the protection of private information flowing from machine to machine.

M2M is currently a highly fragmented ecosystem and this is hindering progress. Calls for a standardised framework for M2M are growing louder but, until then, it is vital that both vendors and businesses looking to deploy M2M put security and privacy at the heart of their endeavours.