IoB Insiders: Planning for the IoT

IoB Insiders: Planning for the IoT

IoB Insiders Organizations must think ahead, to ensure that an influx of new, connected devices doesn’t disrupt the networks and systems in which they’ve already invested, warns Clive Longbottom of research company Quocirca.

The IoT is coming – pretty much whether you like it or not. Vendors will be pushing systems that have a lot more remote sensors, actuators and so on into your space. The question is, are you ready for this, and can you ensure that what comes in does not unbalance everything already in place?

The big problem with the IoT is that it inherently involves ‘big data’. Just taking, as a simple example, a thermistor checking the temperature, say, every second. That’s 86,400 readings per day, or over 30 million readings per year. How many of these devices are you likely to have across your organization? Tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands?

Even though each data packet is very small, such a bombardment of ‘chatty’ data against an existing 1GB or 10GB network will be unsustainable. If you think that distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks from outside the organization are bad, just wait until you’re dealing with a badly-architected internal IoT architecture.

Plus, the IoT will not be purely internal. The greatest value will lie in a more open IoT, with companies embracing those in their value chains, such as suppliers, logistics companies and customers. There is a need to plan ahead to ensure that the average employee will still have an acceptable user experience with the performance of their applications before beginning to implement an IoT strategy.

A careful approach

A carefully architected approach to IoT is needed; one that minimizes the transfer of unneeded data across the network. For an example, let’s go back to that thermistor: assume that the item it’s measuring needs to be kept at 21°C. As long as the thermistor measures that the temperature is 21°C, that’s fine – the reading doesn’t need to be stored or moved at all; it can just be discarded.

Of course, this can be managed through an intelligent IoT device, with such data-handling built in. However, a thermistor costs a few pounds at most. Adding intelligence that can analyze and deal with data will add at least £10 per device, and maybe more – particularly if serious levels of security are to be applied. Furthermore, each device will need its own network-unique IP address – and finding tens of thousands of these may be problematic without a wholesale move to IPv6.

It may also prove difficult to persuade the business to replace everything in which it has already invested, such as production line, security, smart building and other proprietary (often analog) systems, with new TCP/IP-based ones.

No – the IoT, when put into the context of the IoB, must be better than that.

A gateway to the IoT past and future

Instead, consider an architecture that embraces the past and the future, while providing advanced IoT capabilities. For this, there is a need for ‘gateway’ devices. Instead of spending money on making all devices intelligent, some of that potential cost is aggregated and spent on a larger device that manages a collection of IoT devices.

Back to that thermistor again: it remains a simple, dumb thermistor. Its output is read and normalized by the gateway device. The gateway device knows that the reading should be 21°C – and as long as that is what the thermistor keeps seeing on its once-per-minute readings, then that data does not need to go any further than the gateway device. Even if it goes up by a degree or so, the gateway device can log it – but take no further action. Only once the gateway identifies an abnormal trend in readings can it alert a more central, highly intelligent system for action to be taken. Likewise, if that more intelligent central system has seen problems elsewhere in the IoT network, it can ask the gateway device if it has noticed any other anomalies, even at their earliest stages.

The gateway can also deal with IP addresses: each gateway can be a network address translation (NAT) device, serving out a full block of addresses as necessary. In this way, it creates an air-locked section of pure IoT network; one where the data traffic within that section has zero impact on the broader enterprise network. It can have much stronger, enterprise-grade security built into it, and still be cheaper than any attempt to security-harden each IoT device separately.

Anyone investigating the use of an IoT strategy must take steps to ensure that it is fit for purpose: a gateway approach is the best way to ensure that this works.

Quocirca has published a reference architecture to the IoT, which can be freely downloaded here.