Making sense of the Internet of Things

Reflecting on the changes needed in light of Cisco's inaugural Internet of Things World Forum.

This week, Cisco hosted the inaugural Internet of Things World Forum in Barcelona, Spain. The event had a little under 800 attendees, which I thought was a great turnout for a first year event. There was a very diverse set of vendors at the event, ranging from traditional IT companies like Cisco, Oracle and SAP to a number of companies that IT people have likely never heard of, such as Grundfos, QnetiQ and AGT International. As diverse as the companies were, though, they all had one thing in common – the belief that when you live in a world where everything is connected, it significantly changes the way we live, learn and play.

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I seriously doubt there is any kind of universal “killer application” for the IoT, rather a set of “deadly” applications with killer-ish qualities in certain verticals. The key verticals that I see adopting IoT are city governments, retail, oil and gas, finance, healthcare, gaming and transportation. All of these verticals have processes with significant amounts of human latency, which could be streamlined or even automated. Additionally, there are a number of new ways to do business through the connection of “things” and the analysis of data.

I’m not sure how many more IoT World Forums we’ll have in the future as the concepts mature. This reminds me a lot of the early days of the Internet when we had dedicated Internet conferences where IT and business leaders could go to learn what advantages their organizations would get by connecting to the Internet. Today, of course, Internet connectivity is assumed, no one thinks about it and there are no more Internet conferences. I see the IoT playing out the same way, where we’ll have IoT events for the next three-to-five years, and then connecting everything becomes standardized and assumed. In fact, over the next three years there can be several IoT events, some with vertical specialties.

One of the biggest challenges of IoT applications becoming widespread is the standardization of connectivity. Currently, a number of vendors actually have IoT solutions for certain verticals, but many are built on proprietary communication protocols. The simplest thing for the industry would be to put an IP stack on everything that needs connecting. While I’m confident this will happen over time, I do believe that there’s a short-term opportunity for the network vendors, most notably Cisco, to play a role of connecting these various protocols. This is actually how Cisco got its start way back in the early 90s. At the time, there were a bunch of LAN protocols like LANTastik, SNA, AppleTalk, etc., and Cisco was the only vendor that supported them all and helped connect all of these diverse protocols together. The company could do the same thing with IoT to help bridge the gap until the world standardizes IP.

Another challenge I see is security and privacy. During his keynote, Cisco CEO John Chambers said IoT wouldn’t be driven so much by machines talking to machines, but rather people communicating with machines. An example is the “smart vending machine” that SAP was demonstrating, where one could walk up to a vending machine, it could take your picture for log in, or perhaps you could log in using Facebook. It would have all of your candy or beverage preferences and would offer you bundles based on historical patterns. In theory, one could also bring up their community and see who else has been at the vending machine and what they purchased. This only works, however, if the person is willing to have their profiles and information sent over a network to a vending machine.

Another example was a citizen of a city wearing a “smart sensor” where the movements can be tracked and that information used to measure temperature, traffic congestion, the weather or whatever else. Again, the citizen would have to share this information willingly. Proving to a wide demographic base that this information is secure and isn’t being used by big brother to spy on us is a huge hurdle to overcome. I see the benefits of IoT being so great, though, that most will likely opt in to these services rather than fear the security concerns.

For IT individuals, I believe this will create a number of new career paths, as different skills are needed to bring the IoT to life. Again, much like the Internet era created millions of IT jobs and a whole new economy, IoT will do the same. Cisco believes so strongly in this trend that the company created a whole new IoT division and is committing more than $2 billion in funding for IoT-related start-ups (if anyone has an idea, let me know). Additionally, the company plans to create a number of IoT-related certifications, which should help current Cisco engineers make the transition, if they want to.

There's no question in my mind that the IoT is coming. The only question is, are you ready for it?

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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