The power of 2: Liquid computing plus the Internet of things

Brought together, the Internet of things and liquid computing will unlock the next revolution

The next IT revolution will come from an emerging confluence
The next IT revolution will come from an emerging confluence

Last week, I gave a presentation to CIOs at CIO Magazine's CIO Perspectives conference on the intersection of the Internet of things and liquid computing, the sweet spot for significant change in computing that all companies and users should look forward to. Then I figured why not share it with my Smart User blog users at InfoWorld -- and that's what I'm doing here.

There's a lot to both trends, so I recommend you get the InfoWorld Digital Spotlight report on liquid computing and InfoWorld Deep Dive report on the Internet of things for a deeper perspective. Both are available in PDF and ePub formats.

In this presentation, I explain how the two trends are connected -- or should connect, at least -- and the implications for IT organizations.

Internet of things
The Internet of things in summary

The Internet of things is the new cloud -- meaning a term with a tenuous meaning due to marketing misuse and abuse. The term itself is confusing because you don't need the Internet for the Internet of things -- local networks count, too.

But you'll need a local sensor, a means to connect data to an item that can act on the information -- often back to the device with the sensor, but not necessarily so. Objects that can sense and systems that can act on that sensing ultimately comprise the Internet of things.

As a result, you can get directions as you drive, have your home heating adjust itself based on whether you are home, track and present your physical activity, signal a warehouse operator to replenish a parts bucket, silence incoming calls when you are in a dark room (such as when sleeping), or alert a nurse when a patient's vital signs go out of prescribed bounds.

Essentially, the Internet of things is about sensing, analyzing, and acting or responding based on local context.

liquid computing
Liquid computing in summary

At first blush, liquid computing may seem to be a form of the Internet of things. But it's not. Yes, sensors, communications, and computing are involved, but the effort is focused on people-centered workflow. It's not so much automation as augmentation.

The most complete example today is Apple's Handoff functionality in its iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite operating systems on devices that support Bluetooth Low Energy and Wi-Fi Direct radios. If those devices are signed into the same iCloud account and are in radio range of each other, they let each other know what apps are open and provide the option to "move" that application and its current data from one device to another.

For example, if you're composing email on an iPhone and your iPad is nearby, the iPad offers to pick up the email, transferring its content from the email client on the iPhone to the one on the iPad, which is more convenient for composing long messages. You can transfer the email back to the iPhone, such as to use its cellular connection to transmit the email.

In other words, liquid computing lets data and workflow flow among compatible apps on a variety of devices, so users can change their device context without interrupting their workflow or data. No Internet is needed -- the devices use Bluetooth to communicate their state and Wi-Fi Direct to transfer their data peer to peer.

Imagine this style of workflow on the factory floor, in power plants, in hospitals, construction sites, and retail floors. People could use the best tool available at the moment and switch to a better one when available without having to worry about closing one state and re-creating it elsewhere. For example, you could do basic troubleshooting on a handheld, then switch to a tablet or laptop if you need to do more complex work, without losing what you've done so far or its context.

Internet of things plus liquid computing
Local and global come together

If your technology environment supports both the Internet of things and liquid computing, you can do more than either can do alone. You can mix that local workflow flexibility with the power of analytics and software-driven response.

Take the scenario of a hospital where a patient's monitoring data flows from a bedside device to a doctor's tablet to a doctor's laptop as he consults on the patient's condition -- a liquid computing scenario. That same data goes to the hospital's electronic health records system to compare the patient's stats with her medical history, global treatment effectiveness databases, and insurance coverage context -- an Internet of things scenario -- to identify optimal treatment both medically and financially.

Today, the local flow and the global analytics are separate activities handled through separate systems. By allowing the two to happen in a heterogeneous device set, you meld workflow effectiveness with better overall context.

You also can get better security because the flow is restricted to known, authorized devices, whose users are likewise known and authorized. The fact that the devices need to be near each other greatly diminishes the chances both the human and device access are unauthorized or are being spoofed.

The drawbacks of IoT and liquid computing
Where liquid computing and IoT raise alarms

The most secure information is information that no one can access. The most useful information is information that anyone can access, so there are more brains applied to it. That's the conundrum of our connected technology today.

Both the Internet of things and liquid computing increase the connectivity of data to devices, making complete auditing and assurance perhaps impossible. Already, IT departments routinely freak out about cloud storage and mobile device use. Wait till their users bring in this new stuff!

Perhaps worse for IT, the leading providers in liquid computing and Internet of things are not typically your existing IT providers. Apple, Google, and a bunch of startups figure largely in these connected technologies, not so much Microsoft, SAP, Oracle, EMC, and so on.

It's not only devices but the protocols; Apple's Bonjour handshaking protocols, for example, aren't available for Android devices, and its Handoff APIs aren't available for Windows, Android, Chrome OS, or anything non-Apple.

Even traditional providers like IBM who are making a play for these technologies are doing so mostly in a proprietary, locked-in manner. That's common in enterprise IT, where companies routinely describe themselves as an X shop, where X is their lead vendor. The real issue is that the leading providers in these new connected-computing approaches likely aren't the ones you've built your systems around.

Whether you change your technology portfolio or forgo new capabilities from new providers, there's a real price to pay -- consider the ROI and risk cost.

IoT and liquid computing technologies to watch
Technologies to watch

The reality is that technology changes, as do the core systems companies rely on. Where you once used Novell or Token Ring networks, you now use Ethernet. Where you once you DOS, you now use Windows. Where you once used BlackBerry, you now use iOS. Where you once used Unix, you now use Linux. Where you once used Lotus Notes, you now use Exchange -- and on and on.

So too will you need to adjust your technology portfolio for the Internet of things and liquid computing. Bluetooth is maturing into a much richer, more interoperable, and more secure communications stack, soon providing a hook to Internet Protocol. Apple and Google are building out APIs to handle device handshake and handoff and, more important, content management and display across devices.

A host of "think small" lightweight technologies -- microservices, JSON, Docker containers, and hosted APIs (aka MBaaS) -- let you creatae more modular, flexible applications without the heavy orchestration overhead of EAI and SOA. You can both deprecate and add functionality more easily, with less impact on the ecosystem in which your processes and data reside.

The weakest link is a similarly small, local approach to identity and digital rights management, which would make much safer the pass-along attribute of liquid computing and the collect-it-all attribute of Internet of things. If we can figure it out, we'll be able to breathe much more easily.