The core role of IT executives is to drive strategic enablement by stewarding the information and technology resources of the organization. This means balancing the needs of empowering individual user productivity and business process efficiency against organization-wide security, manageability and cost considerations.
Those of us with long careers in the technology sector have seen a consistent, cyclical trend of disruptive technology. Every few years, something big appears that changes everything and IT is always on the bleeding edge. These include the rise of the Internet, the move to Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offerings, followed by mobility, followed by social media and the consumerization of technology. Now, it’s the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), which in scope and scale dwarfs everything that preceded it. Keep in mind, everything listed above is cumulative as well. It’s not like any of these inventions and technologies have disappeared, so the complexity of it all continues to increase.
Like everything that preceded it, IoT does not exist as a technology in isolation. It is part of a larger trend of hybridization of IT experiences. The modern perspective of IT is user-centric, defining IT experiences as a hybrid environment consisting of end-user devices, client software, connectivity to local or centralized resources, data, location and the context or purpose of the user’s technology interaction. IT experiences are often temporary in nature, existing for only a short period of time to serve a specific need, and then recycled into the IT environment. In this context, IoT is simply a new component in the business-technology ecosystem that is available for consumption as a part of the hybrid-IT experience.
Re-framing the situation around IoT in this way is helpful from the IT executive’s perspective because it allows IoT to be viewed as a variation of the mobility trend, which has been a focus of IT executives’ work for a number of years. IoT is very different from mobility on several levels, however. The source volume will potentially increase from billions of mobile devices to trillions of sensors, which drives a whole order of magnitude thing. Many IoT devices stream data almost continuously (e.g. security cameras), which are different than mobile devices, which tend to be transactional. Because of this, IoT brings its own set of security and manageability challenges that the IT organization must address.
- IoT Data Going to 3rd Party Locations: While this may seem primarily a security concern, IoT devices streaming data to applications and services outside the organization’s control does pose a significant data integration challenge. The broad variety of sensor capabilities available from IoT devices has a tremendous potential to drive operational insights relative to industrial automation and process behavior. To mine these insights effectively, IT functions must have access to the IoT data and the capability to easily integrate it with data from other sources. Streaming of IoT data outside the organization makes this integration more difficult and costly (if not impossible). There are also potential legal implications if data is stored outside a country.
- Digital Eavesdropping: This is a considerable problem in the consumer space, with documented examples of security cameras, baby monitors and (alarmingly) cars being hacked. In the business environment, incidents of digital eavesdropping are less publicized, but have the potential for tremendous impact. In the most extreme scenario, IoT devices integrated with cloud-based digital assistants (such as Siri, Alexa or Cortana) could be used to provide a would-be hacker or competitor a front-row seat to confidential office conversations. More likely, IoT devices streaming data to public cloud services managed by 3rd party device manufacturers create a data-security vulnerability and the possibility of sensitive data being intercepted. Recent hacks, such as Yahoo’s billions of compromised emails, are just the beginning.
- Limited Administrative Capabilities: On the surface, it appears most IoT devices are designed for use in a consumer environment, optimized for easy plug-and-play operations. Below this level is industrial IoT, where a vast number of sensors are used for refinery operations, irrigation systems or other functions and processes. In both cases, the devices have limited administrative capabilities. This poses a challenge for IT functions tasked with ensuring service continuity across IoT-enabled experiences or reporting systems. Some IoT-device manufacturers are beginning to introduce enhanced administrative capabilities to address this need, but the enabled devices come at a cost premium. To support IoT devices in business or industrial environments, many IT organizations find themselves developing custom connectors and wrappers around IoT software to enable integration into an organization’s ITSM system.
- TCO/Cost of Support: IoT devices in general have a very low up-front implementation cost to add them to an operating environment. There is, however, a persistent false expectation on the part of most users about the quality, reliability and expected useful life of these devices, as they are expected to be as robust as enterprise-class software. Because of the expectation gap, IT organizations are beginning to experience a significant degree of technical debt related to the support, maintenance and upgrade of IoT devices. Batteries must be replaced, parts wear out, and software/firmware must regularly be upgraded. TCO models in most organizations have not yet fully adjusted to support IoT components.
- IT/OT Alignment: Another massive and disruptive trend that is still somewhat below the surface (but not for much longer) is the movement of IT and OT (operational technology) systems towards each other. IT has the analytics and reporting capabilities to enable execs to optimize investments in IT, while OT has its own capabilities to track a huge number of sensor networks related to both discrete and process manufacturing applications. To this point, these two domains have existed separately, but within the same organization; OT data is appearing more and more in IT analytic and reporting systems. These two groups have historically not seen eye to eye, and that must change.
IoT is a technology trend that is here to stay. Like all before it, it is not to be feared, overcome or mitigated, but, rather, organizations must embrace IoT as part of the new “normal.” IoT has gained significant traction in both the consumer market for technology and the industrial market for sensor networks, and in both cases is widely accepted as a useful productivity tool. IT executives are concerned whenever new technology impacts their ability to control the security, manageability and cost of their technology ecosystem. Fortunately, IoT is maturing fast, and organizations will continue to adapt.
As those of us with extensive IT and technology experience know, constant, disruptive change is the model, and this is always a positive development. The actual question is: how do we embrace change and leverage it for competitive advantage? The core issue is not the IoT itself, but what it represents. That puts the focus on one big requirement: data. Trillions of devices, billions of users, all of them generating data at rates that are still hard to grasp. If you’re struggling to stay ahead of the deluge, because of inconsistencies in the quality of the underlying data all these devices are generating, then it’s time to take a big step back and reassess your requirements. At first blush, this looks complicated, and it is. What it is not, is difficult. The right tools, applied at the right time, can make all the difference.
We’re not suggesting “Don’t worry, be happy.” What we are suggesting is focus now; put the right solutions in place and enjoy the benefits. The major ones are outlined in Blazent’s Top 5 Benefits of IoT video here, or feel free to contact us directly at 510-332-8785.