Get smart about the future of IT

Intelligent sensors will further integrate the physical and digital worlds, thereby unleashing ever more chaos on IT

While there is no denying our worldwide economic slowdown is an impediment to change, don't fool yourself -- the world of high tech is not standing still. In fact, new challenges are arising regardless of whether your company is ready to face them.

IBM has a beauty of a challenge in the form of dynamic infrastructures. Part of IBM's aptly named Smart Planet initiative, the notion of the dynamic infrastructure wasn't invented simply to sell more products and services; it was brought about to reflect changes -- and challenges -- already in motion around us.

[ For more on the shifting role of IT in business, see "Why IT should get in the facilities business." ]

Of course, IBM will offer products and services to meet these challenges, but I'll leave it to Big Blue to tell you about that.

Dynamic infrastructures defined

The idea behind dynamic infrastructures centers on the integration of the digital and physical worlds -- or, if you like, the digital and physical infrastructures. As you might guess, the consequences of this integration will be profound.

Mainly this is about putting sensors everywhere and on every thing -- from bridges, to monitor wear and tear; to smoke stacks, to monitor power generation; to shipping containers, to monitor time and temperature; to "smart" electric meters, to monitor home power needs; to racks of servers and switches and routers, to monitor efficiency and quality of service.

And once the cat -- or the data that these sensors collect -- is out of the bag, there is no going back. Here's an example:

Cost savings reap IT chaos

Suppose you're in charge of a power plant that runs steam through pipes as a means of providing power throughout the day. Certainly, there are times of the day when you don't need as much steam. At these times, the steam gets dumped -- vented into a steam trap and then into the air. The more steam that is vented, the higher the vent whistle blows. So what if you used a sensor to monitor not the steam that is vented but the pitch of the whistle?

Now, say the power plant produces 1,000 pounds of steam, but at a certain time of day, only 700 pounds are needed, with the other 300 pounds being vented. Obviously, you could bring down your steam production, created by coal and fire, and the savings associated with that down by a third. Convinced by these numbers presented by a Honeywell salesperson, maybe with a guarantee from Honeywell on cost reductions, you agree to buy the aforementioned sensors at $1,000 per sensor.

Your steam vent -- which is heaven knows how many years old -- has suddenly become, in essence, a digital device that generates a stream of data. Now you need to determine who is in charge of getting that data from the vent into a software application that can store the data, manage the data, analyze the data, and recommend a solution that, in turn, must also be executed.

And once those sensors are up there and have proved their worth, you can bet there will be an explosion of ideas of where else to put sensors to monitor whatever else.

This is what dynamic infrastructures are all about.

Dynamic infrastructures' profound impact on IT

As you can guess, handling all the new data generated from these sensors is going to be challenging. Analyst Charles King, editor and principal of Pund-It, calls this new model "chaotically distributed computing."

From the street level, rather than from the view of a CFO excited about the costs savings, dynamic infrastructures "can create expanding management/maintenance chaos for IT and datacenter staff," King says.

"Embedding sensors in physical infrastructure assets offers some amazing benefits," he explains, "but extending already strained IT and human resources to support and manage those new data sources could be a nightmare."

IT not only has to manage and integrate all of this new data, but it must also become part of the dynamic infrastructure to drive more efficiency into its datacenter as well.

Pete McCaffrey, IBM's director of dynamic infrastructures, tells me that while the Internet is 5,000 days old, most datacenters are twice that age. McCaffrey says the connection of the physical infrastructure back into the IT infrastructure will help companies make smarter decisions and develop higher value services for their customers.

The current talk over smart utility metering in the home is just such an example. Whereas meters are typically read once a month, those that are linked digitally can be read every 15 minutes if you like. Imagine a utility with 15 million customers reading meters every 15 minutes. You can bet the utility companies are already hard at work creating new services that will be based on that new information.

Of course, unless there is a way to filter out insignificant data in whatever you are monitoring, the task of making sense of all this data and basing decisions on all of it would be insurmountable. But that is what IT is all about: recognizing the difficulties and overcoming them.