The two flavors of M2M: sensor and control nets

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Here's a provocative prediction for you: By 2012, there will be more non-IT than IT devices on the typical corporate network. This came from an IT professional I work with, who's seeing these trends already on his network.

Is it true more broadly? I can't say for sure, but I strongly suspect so. Based on what the IT organizations I work with are telling me, network administrators are increasingly managing networks of devices that aren't traditional IT devices (PCs, servers, routers or switches). Networked devices now include security cameras, sensors, energy meters and embedded control devices -- all of which falls into the broad category of machine-to-machine, or M2M, networking.

More specifically, the corporate network is increasingly expanding to comprise two new flavors of network: sensor networks and control networks. What's a sensor network? In essence, it's a network of devices that provide real-time information about the physical world. Some examples: security cameras, temperature monitors and power meters.

And the fascinating thing about these networks is that they apply to businesses large and small. Yes, BP uses sensor networks to monitor its oil tankers -- but the average small business can also benefit from monitoring the real world.

There's a great story in a recent issue of the New York Times that describes what a sensor network is and why it matters for one small business -- in this case a father-and-son real-estate operation. The son instrumented the father's 11 properties to monitor things like temperature, toilet flow, and the volume of oil tanks.

And how's this for ROI? At one point the son spent $50,000 on computer equipment -- an investment that was more than recouped by energy savings on one apartment building, which had been maintained at a sweltering 96 degrees.

That's the overall business model for sensor networks: By providing greater information, it enables companies to optimize their activities.

What about control networks? Those take the machine-to-machine networks a step further, by embedding the ability to not just monitor reality, but also control it. Think of the difference between measuring temperature and adjusting the thermostat --that's the difference between monitoring and control. Both are important, and you have to do the first before you can do the second.

A critical issue with control networks is security. Although both types of networks can be hacked, the impact of hacking control networks is far greater than the impact of hacking sensor networks -- think of the Stuxnet virus, which affected Iranian power plants.

For these reasons, I believe that machine-to-machine networks will arise in two waves: First, a broad deployment of sensor networks, followed by control networks (with appropriate security). For network managers, though, the predicted impact is the same: By 2012 (or thereabouts), there will be more non-IT devices than IT devices on networks.

Read more about lan and wan in Network World's LAN & WAN section.

This story, "The two flavors of M2M: sensor and control nets" was originally published by Network World.

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