The interconnected environment: hype vs. reality

While the Internet of Things will bring new layers of complexity and infrastructure requirements to the corporate network, the fundamentals of best-practice IT remain the same.

In 1962, the Jetsons’ creators imagined a world 100 years in the future, where people traveled in aerocars, time-saving and nifty devices abound, and everything could ‘talk’ to each other. Fast forward to 2013, and we still have the same interconnected vision in mind. Coined as the Internet of Things (IoT) movement, we’re now striving to connect everything virtually: machines with other machines (M2M), machines with people, and people with other people.

Indeed, many software vendors and technology organisations are putting their weight behind this trend, and are developing technologies that aim to connect everything – from home thermostats and cars to power grids – to the Internet. In fact, it’s been estimated that some 50 billion devices of all kinds will be interconnected by 2020.

From an organisational perspective, there are obvious benefits to having increased connectivity – the ability to provide greater customer experiences, greater access to information, increased operational efficiency, just to name a few. But what does the IoT era actually mean for the IT department? How will this new environment impact on the way organisations manage their technologies? In this brave new connected world, IT managers should take a pragmatic and practical approach to the adoption of IoT to maximise the rewards while minimising risks.

The Internet of “Not Quite” Everything…Yet

If you pare back the media and marketing hype, we’re actually still a long way away from having a truly connected and functional environment. This is especially true for enterprises, since business adoption is likely to be a lot slower than consumers (if you take on a judicious approach to adoption). At its core, an interconnected environment for organisations is about taking existing business operations online, so to realise the full potential of this movement, organisations will need to address significant security, data sharing, and network capacity implications.

With up to 50 billion connected devices predicted by 2020, the management of each individual device will inevitably become more complex. IT managers will need to monitor and manage the explosion in devices while being vigilant against any potential network performance and traffic flow issues.

We are also connecting devices, facilities and infrastructure that weren’t designed to be virtually connected. Connecting industrial machinery and structures like power plants is already proving to add layers of complexity, and has raised significant security concerns around factors like access control and data privacy. For example, can someone remotely take down a power grid via their mobile phone? Even more complexity and implications occur when people have the same mobile device for personal and corporate use.

Then there’s the question of data capacity, specifically around the scope of network capabilities and bandwidth required to facilitate an interconnected environment. Our existing knowledge would suggest that for everything to be connected, large volumes of data will need to flow in many directions. The challenge for IT departments will be to effectively manage this increased load on their organisations’ networks, while operating within existing Internet infrastructures.

It’s never too early

We live in a consumer-driven world; as we’ve seen with the BYO movement, consumer demand often trumps corporate concerns when it comes to the speed and intensity of technology adoption in the workplace. Ignoring trends or operationally ‘unfavourable’ employee practices will only expose the business to more security risks.  

Organisations should use the lessons from the BYOD trend and take a more proactive approach to the management of the IoT era. Developing a sound policy is the most likely starting point – the most important component of any good IT policy is having a well-defined business need.

If the need for an interconnected infrastructure is ambiguous or non-existent, it will expose the business to unnecessary costs, time-waste and risks, and make it impossible for the IT department to design a strong policy framework and use that manage the environment effectively. IT managers and CIOs will need to work with the broader business team to not only assess the business need to take on an IoT approach, but also identify and implement necessary infrastructure improvements and new business models to facilitate this adoption.

It’s different, but the same

From a day-to-day management perspective, the IoT may not be as far removed from existing practices as you may think. As with any emerging technology, the adoption of IoT will most likely come with new and more complex challenges for IT professionals. However, If you take a simpler, more fundamental view, it’s about having more devices (in number and type) accessing the corporate network. And as we know, IT professionals have been managing devices for quite some time now.

As a first step, IT managers should ensure that they have an adequately robust access control strategy and have relevant monitoring tools in place, similar to what they would implement to manage BYOD.

Establishing a network performance baseline is also crucial for detecting any security risks and performance anomalies. Integrating network performance monitoring tools with security information and event management (SIEM) systems will allow IT managers to correlate network events with other events across the enterprise, identify and analyse the root causes of problems across systems, and quickly respond to issues.

Realising the full potential of the interconnected environment will no doubt be beneficial to consumers and enterprises alike. However, it would be a disservice to everyone if enterprises take a laissez faire approach to adoption and product development without carefully assessing the potential risks. While the Internet of Things will bring new layers of complexity and infrastructure requirements to the corporate network, the fundamentals of best-practice IT – robust policies, thorough monitoring, and keeping comprehensive records – remain the same.

Lawrence Garvin is the head geek at SolarWinds

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