The Internet of Things (IoT) is a concept almost as loose in definition as the two terms that make it up: “Internet,” which has come to denote, in whole or in any part, the vast system of electronic communications that now connects nearly every area of human endeavor; and “Things,” which could only be more inclusive if we broadened the term to the Internet of Anything. Perhaps that is coming.
Gartner defines the IoT as “…the network of dedicated physical objects (things) that contain embedded technology to sense or interact with their internal state or external environment. The IoT,” it explains, “comprises an ecosystem that includes things, communication, applications, and data analysis.” McKinsey Global Institute simplifies this a little to say the IoT comprises “sensors and actuators connected by networks to computing systems.” The International Data Corp. (IDC), meanwhile, identifies each of these sensors and actuators as “a uniquely identifiable device with its own IP address that connects over a network.”
In short, the Internet of Things is, well, all of the things connected to and by the Internet. The implications, however, are not so simple. Take, for example, the connected “smart” office.
Of course, many of these things have long been connected to the Internet — the phones, the computers, the alarm system. What is changing is that these things are now also connected to each other through the Internet. The phone system now ties in with the customer relationship management(CRM) software, which is now online (software as a service or SaaS). The alarm system, lights, window blinds, entry systems, and thermostats now communicate with your smartphone, allowing you to control them remotely or allowing them to control each other so that when motion sensors or the keyless entry system detect someone in the building, the air conditioning kicks on and the lights wake up. Your printers and HVAC system now tell you when they need maintenance and, in some cases, schedule their own resupplies. Even your planters have something to say, letting you know when your office plants need water.
The IoT is connecting the warehouse and retail space as well as the office
And this is just in the office. In the warehouse, the Internet of Things is helping to keep track of inventory, track orders, and identify and schedule maintenance for faulty equipment. According to McKinsey, this last has been known to reduce maintenance costs by as much as 40 percent and cut unplanned downtime in half. On the customer end, devices are making it possible to track customer behavior with almost invasive detail. The data gathered at point of sale and through apps, in-store monitoring systems, and inventory management devices enable companies to predict buying habits of individual customers and make super-personalized suggestions. What’s more, they are able to see clearly how a product is being used and even how people are trying but failing to use a product, giving unprecedented insight into how to make products better fit customer expectations.
Experts in every industry are noting the difference this makes in product development. They’re all saying it — a product is no longer just a product. As more and more things get connected, products are becoming services. Where a thermostat used to be something you bought and used until it stopped working, today’s thermostat comes with software, and with the software a support team. Things that used to get outdated regularly can now be upgraded with a simple software update.
In the next few years, customers will come to expect some level of connectivity in almost everything they buy, whether it be the ability to scan a food item for nutritional information or a function that allows their running shoes to send them a notification when it’s time to get a new pair. Businesses will have to jump on this bandwagon from both sides — equipping their products with the connected services customers will come to expect and outfitting their offices, stores, and warehouses with the connected equipment that will help them keep up.
There are a few key areas of concern that seem always to come up whenever we talk about the onward rush of the Internet of Things.
• Security — More connected devices inevitably results in what is referred to as an increased “attack surface.” Where before, a hacker had only a few points of entry to access your company network, the connectedness of things poorly managed could mean that they can now gain access through your potted plant or your vending machine.
• Privacy — While privacy and security generally have a close relationship, in the case of the IoT, the concern seems less to be about the security of private information gathered by connected devices, but the gathering of that information to begin with. Suddenly, an office can monitor the work (and other) habits of the staff. Apps track every move a customer makes in a store. The potential for devices and sensors to gather data is almost endless and some folks are not so comfortable with this.
• Data Storage and Analysis — For those who are comfortable with the gathering of these masses of data, there arise the conjoined twin problems of where and how to store it and how to analyze it. After all, what better way to help folks get comfortable with the collection of personal data than to show them how it is being used to enhance their personal experience.
• Interoperability — As it stands, there are already hundreds and thousands of devices, sensors, gizmos, gadgets, and thingamajigs that connect to the Internet. Unfortunately, almost every one of them currently requires its own app or other software. This is manageable up to a point, but opening seven different apps just to shut down the office for the day gets tiresome and quickly starts to negate any added efficiency being connected may have afforded. As the Internet of Things starts to become just “things,” we will need to find ways to plug these things in to a dashboard of some kind that will make it easier for us to control them and enable them to interact optimally.
• Energy and Bandwidth Needs — We are already seeing how a world of connected devices is affecting our connectivity and energy needs. From coffee shops to airplanes, amendments to include outlets at every seat and Wi-Fi everywhere are becoming commonplace. Data centers are already consuming enough energy to power a large city. The question then arises — as all the things get plugged in and hooked up, how will energy and bandwidth requirements be affected, on both the wide and individual scale?
• Outages — If your entire office functions on connected devices, what happens when you lose power or — heaven forbid — Internet service? Cut lines, bad weather, provider outages — how do you protect a connected business when so much of it depends on things outside your control?
• A.I. Armageddon and a Robot-Controlled Dystopian Future — We’d like to say “nobody’s saying it but everybody’s thinking it” and then laugh it off. But the truth is, people are saying it, and they’re pretty serious. As we give up more and more control of the basic functions of our daily lives to software and computer-controlled devices, how do we know when it becomes too much? Where do we draw the line between automated efficiency and the kind of lazy complacency that stifles creativity and mires innovation?
HOW THE CLOUD MAKES THE IOT MANAGEABLE
Security and Privacy
Big cloud service providers are already thinking about how to bring the Internet of Things together on an enterprise scale. IBM, Microsoft, Amazon, and Samsung (they’re obsessed with the IoT) have all developed platforms to help businesses manage their things. This allows your business to create a single point of access, reducing their attack surface. Moreover, because these companies are in the business of data, their efforts to keep that data secure will always be cutting edge.
A centralized platform also means greater control. While the cloud may not discourage the collection of private data, it can make it much easier to control who has access to it, how it is used, and how securely it is stored.
Data Storage and Analysis
The number of connected devices has grown from a few thousand beginning in the 1980s (think ATMs and pay-at-the pump) to an expected 25 billion by 2020. Most of these devices can be used to gather data that can be useful in making a business run more efficiently.
“Currently, most IoT data are not used. For example, on an oil rig that has 30,000 sensors, only 1 percent of the data are examined. That’s because this information is used mostly to detect and control anomalies — not for optimization and prediction, which provide the greatest value.” (McKinsey)
The amount of data made available by the Internet of Things is unprecedented. For companies to take advantage, they need a lot of space to store it and a lot of power to process it. Cloud storage provides a reliable, secure, and expandable option for the former while SaaS offerings continue to provide more and more options for processing and analysis. This ability to actually use information being gathered has implications for almost every other area of IoT concern.
There are a dozen ways for various devices to connect to the Internet and each other: 2G/3G/4G, NFC, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Bluetooth, WSAN, Z-Wave, good old fashioned wires. They are even developing technology (called LiFi) that uses light waves to transmit information. Unfortunately, most devices operate on a single channel, preventing them from interacting in ways that could be useful. The information they transmit comes to rest in a single-device app, and there is where the usefulness ends.
To deal with the first problem, the tech world has started to develop hubs (we know, yet another thing) that are able to communicate through multiple channels and collect signals from a wide variety of devices, directing those communications through a single app. As these technologies become increasingly sophisticated, they will become more and more adaptable and can be made to interface with custom software designed to help make those communications more useful.
Energy and Bandwidth
The ability to monitor precisely the amount of energy and bandwidth actually being used helps to identify areas where there may be waste and eliminate them. The reality is, most IoT devices use very little bandwidth to operate, if any. It is transmitting the data they gather that may require a bump in your connection. Uniting devices on a cloud platform allows you to reduce redundancies in data transmission, which may help to keep this under control.
On the energy side, though the cloud may not help you get around the need for more outlets, it can eliminate the need for more servers, one of the largest consumers of energy in an office. The data centers that make the cloud possible are, admittedly, huge consumers of power, but they also have huge resources at their disposal to make the generation of that power cleaner and its use more efficient. This reduces the environmental impact and the cost of the energy needed to power your things.
Knowing exactly what you need can help you predict exactly what back-up you need — what kind of battery or generator power, how much bandwidth to avoid maxing out. Centralized analysis can help you do that. What’s more, the cloud allows you to be flexible, which means that, even if the power at your office goes out, workers can keep working from other locations and still have access to the entire business. Even a total loss at your physical office leaves your data and operating systems secure and functional.
Monitoring and processing data allows you to easily see where automation has actually improved efficiency and where human hands and minds are needed to push processes forward and create more innovative approaches. Centralized control puts the technology in your hands, at your disposal, making it the useful tool it is meant to be. While we can’t claim that the cloud can keep computers from getting too smart, the clear picture it can provide of the landscape of our technology may keep us from feeling like we need an A.I. smarter than us to keep it all up and running. And if not, at least it could reduce the number of plugs we need to pull when it all goes to hell.