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.

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Jim Noga, CIO at Partners HealthCare, reports that while networked sensors have been used in healthcare for years, of late he has seen a marked increase in both the number of medical appliances instrumented with sensors and the number of network-enabled sensors embedded into individual devices. "We're also seeing more and more of these sensors that live on our operational network," he says.

For IT, the cost of accommodating IoT initiatives is substantial. "These will be multimillion-dollar investments," and they will require significant R&D investments, says McKenna-Doyle. And business units will expect IT to "knit things together," she adds.

Supporting IoT projects will require more than basic computing infrastructure changes, says Colbert. "IT will need to retool its computing services portfolio to allow a richer number of simple applications to expose data from the IoT," he explains.

Here's a look at four steps IT leaders and analysts say IT should be taking as the Internet of Things proliferates.

1. Ramp Up IT/OT Collaboration

Going forward, upfront collaboration with lines of business and associated operational technology (OT) organizations will be essential. As sensor networks move toward more open architectures, the OT organizations that ran the formerly closed, proprietary systems within each line of business will need to work more closely with IT to resolve a host of issues ranging from integration to security. "IT and OT need to work together to decide who manages, controls and monitors what," says LeHong, "and it's no longer clear-cut." That creates a big opportunity for IT.

For example, if a vending machine can tell when an item is out of stock and send an order to the ERP system, does that mean IT needs another user license? And as OT moves to IP-addressable devices, IT must address network management and security issues. IT may also need to handle software maintenance and upgrades -- areas in which OT lacks expertise. All of those issues must be addressed "when things go on the Internet," LeHong says.

The Internet of Things presents two big security challenges, says John Pescatore, director of Emerging Security Trends at the security research, training and certification organization SANS Institute. Many IoT devices will be consumer-driven, and will therefore start out with weak security and little or no manageability. And even with enterprise-driven devices, IT will face a heterogeneous mix of systems. "IT has to learn how to manage devices that aren't all on the same image running the same operating system and the same version of all apps," he says.

CIOs must rethink the network architecture, according to Colbert. "You have to manage the data, manage the networks, and have multiple layers of security in place to allow access to the people and things that need access," he says. "That's hard work in the complex web of networks you have in a large corporation."

There are challenges within OT. For example, Campisi says GE's Predix OT management platform works only with GE sensors, such as those embedded in its jet engines. The company has, however, developed partnerships to offer a more holistic look at optimizing airline operations, ranging from setting crew schedules to operating fleets more efficiently, he says.

But a consolidated management platform for the many different IoT devices out there doesn't exist yet, says Colbert. "There's no single pane of glass that can traverse all of the different types of technologies," he says.

That will change, says LeHong, as machine-to-machine cloud platforms such as Axeda, Etherios, MyKoots and ThingWorx emerge to fill the void.

Colbert agrees. "There will also be hubs, routers and gateways that will combine with cloud capabilities to bring together the disparate IoT," he says.

Right now, though, the underlying infrastructure to support it all is inadequate, says McKenna-Doyle. "These days, CIOs have to be the integrators of all of these specialty devices and capabilities," she says.

Fortunately, IT is very good at dealing with these types of issues. At Boeing, Colbert says, the IT organization has "locked arms" with the factory technical teams. But Curran says that level of upfront participation is the exception rather than the norm. "The tendency is for the product people to just build the product and then come to IT," he says.

CIOs can't afford to get involved after the fact, but that's an all too common state of affairs, says Forrester's Pelino. "The back-end stuff? The marketers don't think about that. This is something you have to be proactive about," she says.

And IT's involvement shouldn't stop there. Many projects create data silos, so IT can also add value by integrating data in back-end systems and performing analytics, Pelino says.

There's no reason IT can't take the lead in leveraging the Internet of Things for business benefit, says Don Fike, vice president and technical architect at FedEx Corporate Services. "A good place to start is to take a look at your business processes and how they might be impacted by some of the sensor technologies and real-time capabilities," he says. "Step back and say, 'How can this change my business process?'"

LeHong advises CIOs to take the business's top three products and core processes and think about how the IoT might help. "Can you create a better product or service or process?" he asks.

IT executives should also understand how IT can play a critical role in enabling the technology, operationalizing it and securing it. "The more you're aware of the dynamics, the more you can participate in the discussions," says Campisi, adding that when GE talks to businesses about Predix, the CIO is usually involved from the start.

2. Learn to Cope With Consumerization

If industrial sensors weren't enough to think about, IT organizations may be asked to engage with consumer devices they don't control, ranging from smart wristbands that monitor personal health to home thermostats. Some devices might walk in the door with employees or customers, while others might connect in from the home.

Smart things that employees bring to work present a risk-mitigation challenge. "Things will be more advanced in the future. And from a threat perspective, they could be designed to circumvent discovery," says Colbert, adding that that's a big concern for Boeing. IT will also need to develop services and policies for properly classifying data from these emerging smart things, and it will have to establish policy enforcement points to control access and enforce usage rights.

But a world in which employees bring their own smart things to work also presents opportunities. For example, Colbert says, "I wouldn't allow sensors to connect to my general-use network to provide employees' location and body temperature to support building maintenance. But providing a segmented network to support the use case? I'd be interested in that."

Other use cases that IT could propose range from programs to improve the safety of manufacturing environments to wellness competitions that use data from employees' personal health monitors to track the progress of participants, he says. "Sensors are ubiquitous, and it would be silly to think that the only way to leverage the Internet of Things is with things I can control," he says.

Karen Austin, CIO at PG&E Corp., has overseen the installation of 9 million smart meters that help customers understand their power consumption. The utility holding company has also installed sensors in power and natural gas distribution systems that can monitor load/generation characteristics, report outages, and shut off valves and reroute power. Now PG&E is experimenting with ways to connect its smart meters to home networks. "All of the devices in the home, from the dryer to the thermostat, are getting smarter," Austin says. "We want to communicate with those devices to allow them to be more energy-efficient." Adding that IT should think of the IoT as a two-way solution, she says, "You have to be able to handle that from a data and security perspective."

At Partners HealthCare, Noga faces the challenge of integrating data from consumer-based sensors such as IP-enabled blood pressure cuffs and weight scales into the overall IT architecture. That presents data exchange challenges. Moreover, home devices can't be tested for accuracy and recalibrated the way professional hospital equipment can. Because clinicians can't be sure that the data is correct, they must review all data before it's input into a patient's record. IT also preps the data using decision-support algorithms before clinicians see it. "No clinician wants to review hundreds of normal blood pressure readings," says Joseph Kvedar, director of the Center for Connected Health, a Partners HealthCare R&D organization.

But there are consumer products that meet professional healthcare standards, and the economics of using such tools are compelling. For example, healthcare products maker iHealth offers an FDA-approved blood pressure monitor that consumers can find at Best Buy. "We give patients a coupon to buy one, and there's no hub and no data charges. That starts to lower our costs," Kvedar says.

McKenna-Doyle would like to tap into IoT devices that football fans use in order to deepen the level of engagement between fans and their favorite teams. "The emerging [tech] for us is around wearable fitness for the conditioning and management of the overall health of players," she says. The next step might be to let fans with smart bands go online and, say, compare their heart rates and times in the 40-yard dash with those of star players. But capturing that data raises questions about privacy and governance. "There's a discussion as to whether that's medical data," she says. Data from IP-enabled smart devices needs to be classified so that IT can determine whether or not it needs reside on a private network.

3. Get Involved in R&D

The best way to get in front of IoT projects is to place IT at the forefront of product development. "IT can be the engine around which prototyping is done with these new sensor opportunities. It can be a big player in vetting ideas before a major investment is made," Curran says.

For McKenna-Doyle, that means supporting R&D initiatives for projects to embed sensors on footballs, players, the field and helmets. And IT has uncovered many challenges along the way.

Sensors can be used to track who's on the field, map play activity and gather game statistics. But how do you recalibrate field sensors that may get moved -- or removed -- between games? And how do you overcome bandwidth issues in a stadium packed with 70,000 fans? "This is all R&D," she says. "Most CIOs don't have a lot of experience in R&D, but if you want to be successful, you'd better start looking at how you can try some of this stuff."

"You need to have IT consultants who can talk to the OT people so they can build a business plan and present it to a governance body," says Noga. "We try to be supportive of the Center for Connected Health and provide a lab setting for them to do their testing."

The Partners HealthCare IT unit also helps the center figure out whether the technology will scale. "Things work in the lab, but in the real world, when thousands of people are hitting on the system, we have run into issues. So we sit down with the CTO and his team and go over the architecture," Kvedar says.

4. Stay Ahead of the Curve

The most important thing is for CIOs to maintain strong relationships with business units -- and keep in front of the competition. "It's a partnership," says Austin. And it's the CIO's job to establish good governance over the process to ensure that the business executes in a way that doesn't put the company at risk. "What the business needs is very important," says Colbert. "Innovate, but balance that by protecting the crown jewels of the company."

Plan ahead before you're approached for help with an IoT project, because there isn't time to do an extensive study, adds McKenna-Doyle. "You need to say, 'Here are the questions you need to ask,' and we need to have them covered," she says. "Be flexible and make sure everyone understands the risk/reward profile."

IT may feel intimidated by the speed at which this is moving, "but for CIOs who can see the value of the data from these interactions, this is a great time to have a seat at the table," she adds. "Now is the time to embrace this."

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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