4 things to do now to get ready for the Internet of Things

Loads of IP-addressable sensors are descending on the enterprise. Here's how you'll need to pull them all together.

As CIO at Boeing, Ted Colbert is no stranger to the Internet of Things. For more than a decade, the aerospace giant has deployed thousands of communications-enabled smart devices to sense, control and exchange data across the factory floor, on the battlefield, and within the company's 787 Dreamliner aircraft.

For National Football League CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle, however, it's a whole new ballgame. Currently the league is experimenting with instrumentation by deploying sensors on the playing field, the ball, and the players and their helmets; it's even exploring ways to track fans.

The Internet of Things presents two opportunities for IT, says Chris Curran, chief technologist and principal in the advisory practice at PwC. "The first requires the CIO to insert himself into the product design and management process," he says. "The second is a new discussion for the CIO to initiate." One concerns product instrumentation; the other is about "instrumenting" the business itself -- equipping physical locations, vehicles, devices, equipment, people and so on with sensors and beacons to better understand, analyze and make decisions about the way the business processes perform.

To accomplish all of that, McKenna-Doyle says, "a tighter collaboration with customer-facing business partners is a must."

The Internet of Things (IoT) is set to explode, driven largely by the consumer market, where the number of smart "things" and everyday products equipped with IP-addressable sensors -- from wearable smart bands to smart refrigerators -- is multiplying exponentially. Research firm Gartner estimates that 26 billion IoT-ready products will be in service by 2020. That's an average of 3.3 devices for every man, woman and child on the planet. And that doesn't include the projected 7.3 billion smartphones and tablets.

While some of the first smart things were networked sensors used in industrial settings, the definition has broadened. Smart devices increasingly use IP or have access to an IP gateway that can feed data back over the Internet -- and over corporate networks. Michele Pelino, an analyst at Forrester Research, describes IoT devices as "anything that connects objects or assets or individuals [and makes it possible to know their] status in a real-time way."

Gartner analyst Hung LeHong's definition of the IoT includes any connected device or software that can sense and that you can control and use to exchange data. This includes apps that let people send recipes to their ovens, enable BMW owners to unlock their cars if they lose the keys or make it possible for Tesla electric cars to receive automatic over-the-air software upgrades, he says.

As with mobile phones before them, some of these new devices will walk through the office door with employees, while others will be embedded in products that connect to corporate systems from homes and other businesses. And the number of IoT applications spearheaded by lines of business will increase as organizations find new ways to improve productivity, streamline processes and fatten up the bottom line by instrumenting equipment, environments and people and analyzing the data streams generated by those systems.

Even seasoned veterans like Colbert are bracing for an onslaught. What's different now, he says, is the accessibility of many different types of data, the speed at which the data can be gathered, and the tools a business can use to get its arms around that data. "The pace of development of sensors is moving much faster than folks can keep up with," he says. And as the cost of developing and deploying sensors has dropped, businesses can capture more data faster and from more parts of more assets than ever before. "This is about solving hard business problems with better data," Curran says.

It's a sea change, says Vince Campisi, CIO at General Electric's Global Software Center. "Before, even if we had the ability to get the cost of the sensor down, we wouldn't have been able to transport, store and analyze the data." Now, with the evolution of tools for managing and analyzing big data, he says, "we have both."

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