The Internet of Things (IoT) has replaced cloud computing as the IT topic everyone is talking about. Analysts are united in proclaiming it as one of their top ten trends for 2015, with IDC predicting that spending on IoT this year will exceed $1.7 trillion.
There is certainly some compelling technology. The coming together of ubiquitous wireless communications, low cost embedded sensors, improved battery technology and the ability to collect data from any device have already resulted in a range of innovative applications. From tracking sheep in North Wales to finding out how far away your train is or controlling your medical device – all are already happening, and the potential benefits of these applications are clear. What will follow is surely only limited by our imagination.
But before we all get carried away, we need to take a hard look at the practicalities of the IoT. Are we prepared for the implications of communicating with all these devices and the deluge of data, mostly worthless until sorted, consolidated and analysed, that they will produce?
The IoT for consumer devices has one set of issues. Everyone has their own opinion on whether using their phone or tablet to talk to their fridge, thermostat etc. is incredibly useful or completely unnecessary, but the security implications for consumer devices are the biggest concern. Remember the family in the US last year who found that their baby monitoring device was being controlled by a third party? Meanwhile former US Vice President Dick Cheney had the wireless functionality on his heart implant disabled in case a terrorist might hack it in an assassination attempt.
Security is also one of the concerns for businesses using the IoT, or M2M (machine to machine) communication. The implications broadly fall into three areas: communicating with all these devices, managing all the data they provide and maintaining security.
First, consider the extra traffic that will impact your network infrastructure. A single sensor generates very little traffic, 10,000 collectively a fair amount, while 1 million equals a business issue. The IoT requires seamless integration between many distinct and separate systems, and every organisation will need to make its own decision on what needs to be connected and how often to report. As well as the bandwidth implications, organisations will need an increased investment in traffic monitoring and management to ensure that everything is working smoothly, minimise the impact on other business operations, and detect malicious traffic patterns.
They will also have to address the challenge of separating enterprise and personal data – we can imagine the implications of members of staff receiving regular updates from their consumer products, thus enterprises will need to find a way of mitigating this to avoid their network going into meltdown.
The second issue is how to handle tremendous volumes of machine generated data, which has to be stored, organised and analysed, potentially in real time. The IoT will require massive storage and processing capacity, which of necessity is likely to reside in the cloud unless there are specific security sensitivities. In the last few years we’ve seen storage needs grow exponentially to handle the volumes of data generated by digital images, video and multimedia, but this is orders of magnitude smaller than the volume of data we can expect the IoT to generate.
I believe there is no point in collecting all this data unless you are going to do something with it that adds value to your business. Frameworks such as Hadoop will help organisations develop and run software applications to store and manipulate data, but they will still need the time, resources and most importantly vision to decide what they can usefully obtain from it to generate competitive advantage for their business. Before plunging headlong into the IoT, organisations need to be sure that the benefits are worth the investment.
The final aspect of the IoT we need to consider is security, which raises many of the same issues we have already seen when implementing BYOD. Organisations will need to be extremely vigilant with every device that comes into their building or accesses their network. Can they be confident that employees setting these devices have configured them correctly and not simply left them with their default settings and passwords? As mentioned earlier, network monitoring software will need to look out for malicious traffic patterns, and data protection will become an even larger issue in both sense of the word.
So while I’m encouraged by the possibilities of the IoT, I think we all need to be realistic about the practical challenges it poses and the resource implications for businesses which are already working with tight IT budgets. Organisations need to begin by thinking about it at a strategic level to ensure that they benefit from what is potentially an exciting new era for IT.