The Internet of Things, in the Real World
By Manuel Bautista, CIO, Harvard Maintenance
The Internet of things (IoT) is a term coined to describe the increasing number of devices embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity that collect and exchange data. Everything from smart TVs, medical devices, home automation tools, and intelligent building products are getting connected to private and public networks. All these are considered part of the IoT ecosystem. Additionally, programmable logic controllers (PLCs) are increasingly being installed to allow the automation of devices that control traditional analog machinery such as factory assembly lines, making them digitally accessible for improved monitoring and control purposes. With all these connected devices, data and analytics are being collected in areas that were never possible before giving us unprecedented opportunities to improve outcomes, efficiencies, experiences, and offerings. IoT has been making its rounds throughout the tech community for the last few years and represents an innovative idea of the future. Is IoT ready for primetime, and what does it really mean for you and me in our day to day lives?
First world economies are seeing the fastest adoption of IoT technologies due to the increasing commoditization of sensors and the ubiquity of connectivity. Starting with the birth of the modern smartphone, sensors have become part of our everyday lives. The demand for these millions of sensors over the last decade has created a manufacturing infrastructure that has driven the cost and modularity to what I call the "Maker" level. This is creating an easy entry point for startups and hobby enthusiasts, giving them even more opportunities for innovation in this growing market. It is sobering to realize that GPS, light, proximity, touch, infrared, step, fingerprint, iris, and photosensors are only a few of the many components that are part of devices that we carry around in our pockets every day.
Admittedly, there is plenty of attention around IoT and it is seemingly unavoidable not to get absorbed into the allure of the latest technologies associated with it. It is difficult to ignore its promise of sci-fi like home automation, intelligent digital assistants, proactive healthcare, and advanced equipment diagnostics. Unfortunately, as we pull back the layers and look past the sales and marketing hype, you’ll find that the current landscape is far from ideal.
It is easy to consider all these technological advancements great, but we are at a point where issues with interoperability, increased data volume, connectivity demands, and security are all important pieces of that we need to explore and consider for the successful future of IoT.
The increased bandwidth and addressing needs coming from IoT devices, and the backend infrastructures built to support them are real bottlenecks to tackle in the near future
To date, other than some connectivity guidelines (i.e. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, etc.) there are no standards to guide the development of either hardware or software. This leaves us with a situation where "Wild, Wild West" rules still apply.
As with a lot of new technologies, there are many players crowding the field. This has to lead us to a huge lack of integration and just like with the Beta vs. VHS and Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD standardization issues of the past, I can envision us needing to make similarly difficult “may the best one win” decisions in the future. If you aren’t building your own devices or conforming to a single vendor solution, interoperability is going to be difficult. As soon as you start to try to integrate devices, you'll quickly realize that you may need to develop a custom solution. I've found that it is becoming increasingly improbable to escape vendor lock-in. You’d hope this is not by design, but some vendors tend to be so short-sighted that they are only interested in the quick buck. They count on their reputation for an immediate market grab, leaving us to fend for ourselves when trying to decide on the best fit for our needs. Luckily, services like If This Then That (IFTTT), Zapier, and Microsoft Flow are at least thinking about the future of interoperability. There are still many limitations, but let’s hope that this trend continues and more manufacturers join this movement to play well with others.
Remember IPv6? It is time for it to become a reality very soon. The increased bandwidth and addressing needs coming from IoT devices, and the backend infrastructures built to support them are real bottlenecks to tackle in the near future. IP addresses are numerical labels used by devices to connect and route them through the internet. The IPv4 systems we use today give us approximately 4.3 billion addresses, and even though that is a very large number, we are and have been running out for a while. Back in 1998, IPv6 was developed to address this IPv4 address exhaustion issue and as soon as we get around to converting, we will have approximately 3.4×1038 addresses. At the continued rate of devices getting on the net, it seems nothing but inevitable, and I've already seen Amazon Web Services, Comcast, and others seriously stepping up their efforts to make this a reality. Additionally, several new technologies like 5G (for mobile) and seven-core glass fiber cables (for physical connections) make the future look promising for our increasing bandwidth needs.
The biggest issue I see with IoT is the illusion of security. The lack of standards, users’ perceived need for simplicity and vendor complicity or complacency, has left us exposed with weak passwords, poor protocol compliance, and little to no update procedures. For even the most novices of hackers, there is an abundance of vulnerabilities to exploit. There isn't a month that goes by without another major site scandal regarding some sort of security breach, and that is just what is known and reported. By comparison, there are thousands of breaches that go undetected and we are just continuing to create a more target-rich environment. Fortunately, some simple solutions are within our reach and by adding encryption, proactive security patching, and some stronger password capabilities, we will start to go in the right direction. As with everything, security should not be an afterthought and be one of the first things considered when developing a successful solution or product.
IoT is a great, growing technology and I am excited to see where it can take us. It is not quite where I’d like it to be, but the potential is there for success. I hope to see many new entrants in the space in the coming years, and I look forward to all the new innovation. As long as we are realistic and take a measured approach to adoption, I can see it becoming a seamless part of our day to day life.