Many organizations today are looking for things that talk to the Internet. Sensors, cameras, medical equipment and even snowplows are on that wish list. The "Internet of things" is not.
The municipalities that come to systems integrator AGT International are already sold on so-called IoT technologies, such as wireless traffic sensors embedded in streets, said Gadi Lenz, a senior technical fellow at AGT.
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But they aren't interested in IoT, nor in "smart cities," another term that's been getting a lot of play lately. What they want, Lenz said, is a solution to their problems.
Even Cisco Systems, one of the biggest evangelists for IoT, thinks the concept still needs some explaining. Enterprises, cities and utilities all could stand to benefit from IoT, but first they need a better idea of how it can help them do their jobs.
"We definitely need to spend more time educating the market," Inbar Lasser-Raab, vice president of Enterprise Network Solutions, said last week at a meeting at Cisco. Leaders from IT vendors, industrial companies and governments came together there to hash out issues for IoT.
Networked devices have been talking to each other for years. What's new in so-called IoT is the scale of those networks and the way advanced data analysis can draw conclusions from them. But getting this broad vision off the ground, including getting enterprises to adopt the new technology, raises several challenges, according to participants at last week's meeting.
AGT's Lenz said his company has been implementing sensor networks in cities for years, but as those devices get smaller and cheaper, they also become more plentiful. That can change the scale of projects as well as how the devices are deployed, Lenz said. More devices means new possibilities and new problems.
For example, devices that can measure a wide variety of environmental conditions are now small enough to put in backpacks, so ordinary citizens may be able to carry them around, Lenz said. Such devices used to be so big there could only be a few, strategically placed around a city. An exponential growth in the number of sensors means much more data but also calls for new techniques to distribute and manage those sensors, he said.
IoT may also mean dealing with multiple kinds of data and figuring out the best approach for each. For example, 10 years ago, the only data that electric companies collected from their grids was critical, time-sensitive information needed to operate and protect the grid, said Dean Siegrist, who is director for Utility Telecom at Black & Veatch, an engineering company serving utilities. Now the power companies are also gathering data about the power use of individual households, which they serve back to the customers to help them monitor their usage, he said.
Those two types of data have different requirements in terms of urgency and security, so utilities have to decide where to draw the line between them and what infrastructure is best for each, Siegrist said.
IoT also brings new ways of processing data in order to run more efficiently or even generate more revenue. For example, Ford Motor plans to collect data about how consumers use new technologies, including electric cars and new dashboard designs, in order to fine-tune future vehicles, said Jim Buczkowski, a Henry Ford Technical Fellow and director at Ford.
The services business of Xerox, which has helped enterprises plan and set up IoT systems, is trying to help them boost revenue and improve products. For example, the company is helping transit providers redefine routes based on fare data, said Rebecca Scholl, a senior vice president at Xerox.
"Our customers are no longer content with just a cost savings," Scholl said.
The city of Chicago uses GPS (Global Positioning System) to track the location of its more than 400 snowplows and put that data in a real-time smartphone app. The app has helped to dispel a myth that the mayor and other high-ranking officials get their streets plowed first, said Deputy Mayor Steve Koch.
"It's weirdly popular. People are sort of obsessed with this kind of stuff," Koch said.
However, most enterprises aren't yet organized to take advantage of all the information they may have, she said.
"Especially in large corporations, getting to the right person who's going to have the full visibility over the impact of IoT across multiple business processes ... you don't have that person," Scholl said. "Right now, everybody has a clear mandate, and it's not yet that one."
She proposed companies establish a new role of chief digital officer, who would sit between the CIO, CFO and operations chief to coordinate efforts around IoT and data analysis.
Several speakers and participants also cited the overarching challenges of security and standardization.
The lack of standards can make IoT deployments far more expensive and time-consuming, according to Lenz from AGT. There are open standards for many types of IoT networks, but there seems to be resistance to using them, he said. For example, one city where AGT set up road sensors wanted to feed the sensor data wirelessly through Wi-Fi access points on light poles. But the sensors used a legacy protocol instead of Wi-Fi, so the access points had to be equipped with extra radios, Lenz said.