More than 20 years ago, Jack Welch, then chief executive of General Electric, said that information systems would be his company’s top priority. Since then, technology enablement of key corporate strategies hasn’t lost its place at the head of the priority list for most companies, whether the technology is an electronic medical record (EMR), drone deliveries of consumer goods, or new ways to monetize home services by sensor-enabling home appliances.
Another technology factor hasn’t changed much for chief executives: Technology doesn’t work well unless it can link into an existing base of legacy technologies and be well positioned to integrate with technologies that have yet to be invented. In other words, you can’t afford to invest anymore in a rogue operating system, an esoteric telecommunications protocol, or a piece of hardware whose future is solely dependent on its vendor’s survival or on its connectivity being accepted as a de facto industry standard.
Interoperability, plug-and-play connectivity, and integration are players in a fiercely contested game that is often fought to the death for the vendors and the organizations that compete in it. I can think of several hardware platforms and operating systems that were superior to what won out (and survived) as standards. Those that didn’t make it lacked the marketing organizations and political clout to get their brands established.
Five years ago, I was engaged as a consultant in a series of standards definition discussions held between government officials and public utilities. The goal was to achieve interoperability and a set of usable standards that would enable communications across all pieces of the US energy grid. The grid is still a work in progress.
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Now as companies are gearing up to kick off strategies (and budget commitments) to develop new Internet of Things (IoT) processes and services they can monetize, or that they can insert into their internal operations to make these operations more automated and easier to run, we are at the same standards crossroad: Two IoT standards, DDS (data distribution service), and OPC UA (OPC unified architecture) seem to be competing against each other to control the market. Or are they?
“Our vision is interoperability,” said Stan Schneider, CEO at Real Time Innovations (RTI), which enables DDS IoT devices for healthcare and other industries. “We are working with OPC UA and have already engaged our two staffs so they are working together on a gateway product that will enable companies to use either DDS or OPC UA connectivity.”
According to Tom Burke, president and executive director at the OPC Foundation, “Too much is at stake for us to allow companies to stall until they can see a clear winner of a standards battle.”
If this isn’t headache relief for CIOs who are in the hot seat to make the right calls about the IoT connectivity and products that will survive, I don’t know what is.
One thing that the onslaught of distributed computing brought in the 1990s was that computers could be treated as interchangeable commodities. This was followed closely by the growth of democratic operating systems like Linux and UNIX that could be run on nearly every hardware platform.
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To be sure, there are still standards wars (and vendor wars) wars being raged. Today, IoT equipment vendors use either DDS or OPC UA connectivity–but their devices can’t be used with both. Fortunately, the proponents of both platforms see the importance of making IoT connectivity universal so that businesses can justify their IoT investments and move forward.
What can CIOs and other chief corporate decision makers take away from this?
- With connectivity-dependent technologies like IoT, vendors are finally understanding that gating off access to their products (and connectivity options) doesn’t make good business sense for either themselves or their clients.
- The risk management element of choosing one technology over another should lessen in coming years.
- The pressure of having to make best-guess choices of one technology approach over another–with the future of your career and your company at stake–should lessen as well.
Of course, we aren’t there yet. The connectivity and workflow problems of electronic medical record systems are a prime example. But we are getting there so that we may have a future of just worrying about the business applications and the technology that enables them.