The Internet of Things (IoT) has rapidly become the buzzword of the moment, but the reality is that more and more devices are getting connected and organisations looking to draw some business value from this trend need to start adapting their IT infrastructure for the challenges it will bring, some of which will require new people with new kinds of expertise.
Executives from chip firm ARM and storage and data management firm NetApp attended a roundtable event in London to discuss the changes that IoT applications are already bringing and the challenges ahead such as security, data collection and management, and how to manage large numbers of devices out there on the internet.
The principal message was that organisations should evaluate whether their IT infrastructure is up to the new demands of the IoT, although this will depend on the kind of applications each organisation implements.
"IT has to recognise that it needs to go through a fairly significant revolution to be ready for the IoT," said Matt Watts, director of technology and strategy at NetApp in EMEA.
"I think the process is starting anyway, as they are starting to tap into much larger quantities of information than they did before. The challenge for IT is how to continue to focus and secure the operational part of a business, while investing in new technologies and potentially new people to focus on the growth and transformation areas."
Watts cited NetApp's own storage array products as an example of what is possible. These include an integrated monitoring and reporting feature called AutoSupport that constantly checks storage health status and feeds that data back to NetApp for analysis.
"There are about 400,000 systems all transmitting data back, which is a huge volume of data to deal with. We were using traditional relational databases to mine this information, but those systems were not designed to deal with that kind of scale, and our database hit 24 billion rows. At that point you just can't ask the kinds of questions you want to ask," he said.
NetApp's recently implemented solution was to build a Hadoop system to store and process all the data, with the result that it can now process queries in about 10 hours that previously took two weeks, and the firm is now able to uncover patterns and trends in the data that were not apparent before.
This kind of data gathering system is often held up as a typical use case for the IoT, and shows that firms may have to rethink how they store and process information to cope with large volumes of data that may be streamed back from sensor-enabled devices. It also shows that having the right analytics tools will be vital to many IoT applications.
But this is just one aspect of the IoT. There are a host of other considerations, such as security, connectivity and management of devices, the latter of which may be small and have only a limited amount of available processing power.
"IoT allows us to take a vast amount of already deployed sensors and newly deployed sensors, and connect them to each other and to multiple users as well as organisations, and use the data to apply to business processes and new business models. All of that has huge potential in terms of automating things and finding efficiencies," said Bee Hayes-Thakore, director of marketing programmes for IoT at chipmaker ARM.
"A large part of this depends on an underlying emphasis on energy efficiency. We've had multiple levels of sensors connected before in vertical niches, but now when they connect to each other and to vast networks, that is really important, and that is some of the work that we are doing at ARM."
Security has to be an underlying foundation in all these devices, Hayes-Thakore said, even those built around microcontrollers costing less than $1 because connecting them to the internet means potentially exposing them to the entire world.
This requires a robust security framework to ensure that communications between the device and back-end control systems are subject to authentication, for one thing. However, Watts warned that there are a great many devices now being connected that fall short of this requirement, which could lead to what he calls "the internet of unpatchable crap".
There are tangible benefits from a successful IoT deployment if these challenges can be met, according to the panel. Hayes-Thakore sees a new industry sector springing up to help extract value from the masses of raw data being collected.
"If we get it right, there is a huge industry out there that could be a value-added application layer that supports data collection and analysis. I definitely think there is an entire industry out there that is to be created at some point," she said.
One toolkit that organisations can turn to, but was not really touched on by the panel, is cloud services. Microsoft and Amazon Web Services are building services specifically aimed at IoT projects, including management of endpoint devices and routing of messages from these devices to other services, such as for data storage or event handling.
Both these cloud providers also have the scale-out storage resources to handle almost any volume of data that customer applications might throw at them, as well as analytics services to make sense of all that data.
The overriding impression from the roundtable is that IoT applications are still very much at the hype stage. There are too many 'wouldn't it be cool if we could do this?' ideas being floated and too few real-life case studies or best practice guidelines being published.
Nevertheless, the message seems to be that organisations need to prepare now for how the IoT is going to affect them. They need to consider whether existing IT is up to the job or whether to use cloud services, how they will manage masses of new data and, perhaps most important of all, whether they have the right staff with the right skills for the job.
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