Analysts say there will be 4.9 billion Internet of Things (IoT) devices by the end of this 2015, with estimates of over 50 billion “connected” IoT devices by 2020. What puzzles many is how all these disparate devices will interact.

The big picture

Since interconnecting digital things is what Cisco does, it is not unexpected that the people at Cisco have been thinking about this issue. In fact, they’re past thinking.

Rather than just trying to connect IoT devices, Cisco engineers stepped back and analyzed the big picture. Their conclusion was to connect, capture, compile, and analyze data collected by IoT devices. Six distinct elements, or what they call pillars, need to be melded into a comprehensive IoT architecture.

On June 29, 2015, they introduced their answer: IoT System (Figure A). From the press release: “The new Cisco IoT System addresses the complexity of digitization with an infrastructure designed to manage large scale systems of diverse endpoints and platforms, and the data deluge they create.”

The pillars of Cisco’s IoT System

Network connectivity: Businesses deploying an IoT platform need flexible and scalable wired and wireless networks to deploy their applications from the cloud to the IoT devices. This is Cisco’s bread and butter. Seeing a need, the company has increased its presence in industrial/operational environments by offering networking products in ruggedized form factors.

Fog computing: Cisco believes the current “cloud model” will not handle the inevitable barrage of data — what’s needed is a distributed-computing environment with more intelligence at the network edge that will:

  • eliminate sending raw sensor data back to the cloud for processing;
  • reduce latency; and
  • minimize bandwidth needs.

One example of how fog computing would be useful is a pressure sensor. The sensor could be instructed to read pressure every second, but only report the pressure reading every half hour if it is within certain prescribed limits. If the reading is outside the limits, it would immediately send that information.

Security (cyber and physical): Cisco is melding cyber and physical security, including cloud- and network-based threats, user identity, and physical perimeter containment into one package, or what it calls “addressing the entire attack continuum.” The press release mentions, “Cisco’s IP surveillance portfolio and network products with TrustSec security allow users to monitor, detect, and respond to combined IT and Operational Technology (OT) attacks.”

Data analytics: Cisco is building IoT-specific APIs that support the company’s Connected Analytics portfolio. From the analytics webpage: “By integrating network, storage, and compute capabilities on select Cisco routers, switches, UCS servers, and IP cameras, we allow analytics to run directly on fog nodes for real-time collection, storage, and analysis at the network edge.”

Management and automation: Cisco offers customizable management and automation products (IoT Field Network Director and Cisco Prime), which can either function in siloed environments or across the entire organization.

Application enablement platform: Cisco designed this platform to work around IoT device disparity by giving app developers and IoT-device manufacturers a common app-development environment.

IoT-specific products

An example of Cisco IoT-specific equipment is the 5900 Series Embedded Services Router (ESR), which provides data, voice, and video communications to stationary and mobile networks. The 5940 ESR in Figure B could establish mobile networks in vehicles.

Figure B

Cisco is serious about the IoT

In this webcast, Kip Compton, vice president of IoT systems and software at Cisco, talks about how important the IoT is to the company’s future. He adds that Cisco is the most-active investor in the IoT space with over $250 million in 2014.

The fact that Cisco has over 70,000 channel partners is significant as well. Case in point, Sujeet Chand, senior vice president and CTO, Rockwell Automation, states in the Cisco press release, “Rockwell Automation and Cisco take a collaborative approach to bring OT and IT together to deliver performance-critical information to drive business outcomes across the connected enterprise.”

Merging IT and OT: Internet of Everything?

Twice in this article OT has been referenced. Gartner defines OT as “The hardware and software that detects or causes a change through the direct monitoring and/or control of physical devices, processes and events in the enterprise.”

Larry Dignan, in his ZDNet post Cisco fleshes out its Internet of things system portfolio, mentions a possible future, “Indeed, the Cisco and Rockwell partnership is based on the idea that operations and information technology will connect and possibly merge over time.”

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