Big Data and the Internet of Things

There's little practical benefit the Internet of Things without an ability to track, manage, and glean useful information from the massive amount of data a world of interconnected devices will generate.

It has been interesting to observe technical innovation over the past several decades. In some cases, revolutionary new technologies came from seemingly nowhere to completely change technology as we know it. No one was clamoring for a Walkman, yet the device created an entirely new category of consumer electronics whose influence can be felt even in today's iPod.

On the other side of the coin are innovations that have long been predicted, but the technologies to allow the innovation to enter the market either don't exist, are too expensive, or are missing a few critical elements. I would put the internet of things in this category; after all, it's long been predicted that our devices-from basic appliances to our vehicles and telephones-would one day "talk" and share information with each other. While elements of the internet of devices equation have come into play over the last decade, the cornerstone of the concept is Big Data, another technology that's finally reaching a semblance of maturity.

Early attempts at creating what's now called the internet of things looked at the problem as a largely technical one. You'd need ubiquitous data networks, protocols for communication, cheap microcontrollers, and development tools and technology to get the devices talking. While this might get your "things" on the internet, there's little practical benefit to this arrangement without an ability to track, manage, and glean useful information from the massive amount of data a world of interconnected devices will generate.

Preparing for the invasion of the things

While there's near universal agreement that an internet of things will be wonderful, there seems to be less clarity around what data should be propagated and harvested from these devices, and how a company should manage it all. If you're a consumer appliance company, putting an interconnected coffeemaker on every countertop might sound wonderful, until you ponder what data are relevant, what services to push, and what business decisions can be gleaned from the minutiae of the morning "cup of Joe" on a massive scale.

At this point in the evolution of the internet of things it has become relatively easy to embed a connected microprocessor in a device, and the difficulty comes with providing more than rudimentary services with that connection. Other than stern warnings about outdated firmware, most of my connected appliances have done little to leverage their connectivity. Rather than looking at the internet of things as a connectivity problem, consider it as more of a data problem. Each connected "thing" is a point of data capture and data presentation. How you provide, gather, and manage the data generated by this network is how you'll generate a business benefit from an internet of things.

It's all in the data

While our product designers are focused on the rudiments of device connectivity, it's incumbent upon IT to do two things to capture the most benefit from the internet of things. First, IT is well-positioned to shift product planning discussions from the "gee whiz" of an interconnected device to the data and services that should be delivered on it. Just as no one cares about mobile networks anymore beyond coverage and speed, connected devices will soon become commodities that win based on the services they offer, not their mere connectedness. Secondly, IT must realize the massive infrastructure required to support an internet of things, particularly around Big Data. It's relatively obvious that you'll need everything from bandwidth to a device management infrastructure; what's less obvious is that you'll need analytical capabilities to generate some value from your network of connected devices beyond merely distributing firmware and pushing ads.

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...