While the Internet of Things (IoT) should not be an unfamiliar term to most IT executives, many consider it primarily a consumer technology that's dominated by smart watches and refrigerators that will tweet when you're out of milk. Many of the IoT concepts have indeed targeted the consumer, but most of the major technology innovations of the past several years have originated in the consumer space, and the IoT is no exception.
The "things" are coming, like it or not
One of the biggest impacts to the enterprise is that the number and variety of devices connecting to your networks and potentially consuming IT resources is likely to increase exponentially. Consider that the typical enterprise today has one or two devices per user. If that enterprise lacks a BYOD policy, those devices might be part of a dozen or so potential configurations powered by a handful of operating systems. As BYOD becomes more widespread, the per-user device count could jump to three or four devices, as personal laptops, tablets, and smartphones complement the corporate-issued laptop.
With the IoT, everything from watches to fitness monitors to intelligent office furniture comes into the mix. In the coming months, a single gadget-obsessed individual might walk through your lobby sporting more connected and communicating devices on his or her person than an entire department had a couple of years ago.
Traditional ideas around endpoint management, which assumed that an IT shop must track, manage, and patch every device that's connected to its network quickly, become untenable when a single employee might have over a half-dozen connected devices, each with a highly-customized OS and wildly different management capabilities. Furthermore, several of these devices may not even appear on your network, such as using a smartphone or computer to communicate with a cloud-based service of unknown providence.
Getting ready for the "things"
Just like non-sanctioned smartphones and tablets caught some organizations flat-footed, so will the onslaught of the IoT, unless your organization takes the time to develop a strategy and response, ideally before the problem manifests itself.
While a prohibition against non-sanctioned devices might be tempting, the experience of most IT leaders with the iPhone provides a clue as to the limited success of such an effort. All it takes to end the most well-intentioned device bans is a CEO who wants his or her new connected device to "just work" while in the office. Rather than a ban on non-work devices, consider a bandwidth-limited visitor/personal network that's logically or physically separated from your core corporate network. This is an easy solution to the question of personal devices, but not every "thing" that's likely to wind up coming through your doors will be a personal device.
Shows like CES are full of consumer devices, but the underlying technologies powering these devices — lightweight operating systems, inexpensive hardware, and long battery life — are equally applicable to the enterprise. While you may not have an influx of quadcopters, a connected forklift or "smart" pallet is highly likely as prices fall, due to consumer devices driving down prices. This means hundreds or even thousands of new devices connecting to your network, sending and receiving information, and requiring tools and infrastructure to analyze the data they generate.
If there's not at least a line item in your future budgets — and better yet, an initial technology strategy and lab where you're testing the impact of the IoT on your business — you'll likely be playing a game of catch-up as your network strains to serve an exponential increase in devices, and your peers in the business will demand reports from tools you haven't yet built. Like it or not, the "invasion of things" is currently underway. Like most technology shifts, the organizations that are prepared will use the new technology to their advantage, while the unprepared will struggle to catch up.
- The Internet of Things: What you need to know
- The Executive's Guide to the Internet of Things
- Tapping M2M: The Internet of Things
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at email@example.com, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.