The IoT community likes to get excited by the potential number of connected devices, and the revenue that could generate for solution providers – but there are some other, more stark figures that should give everyone a reality check.
I want to focus on the lessons we learnt at our IoT Build conference, which was fundamentally a gathering for network architects, CTOs, CIOs and solution providers to come together and build the infrastructure for the Internet of Things.
IoT standardization – a problem that will go on…and on
We’ve often highlighted on the pages of IoB on the issue of standardization. There are some 100+ standards across the various levels of IoT stack, from the sensor level to network connectivity (LTE, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, LPWAN etc.), cloud and security. There are also other standards that apply to certain industries of course.
What concerned me from IoT Build though was two things on standardization. One, is that there’s a consensus we’ll see more standards in 2017 – not less – leading one to label it a ‘bloody mess’. And when you heard such words coming from Hive and Stanley Security, early adopters of IoT, you know that it’s an issue that will entrap many other, less technically-advanced firms.
“It’s very confusing, there are many standards on the sensor side, WAN, LAN, MAN… it all depends if you want to work locally, or if you want a global IoT deployment. It also depends how you want to deploy IoT applications,” said Stanley Security digital innovation leader Jeevarathinam Ravikumar, adding that Bluetooth’s BLE and ZigBee are growing especially quickly.
Furthermore, as my second point, there’s a bigger question as to who drives standardization. Labour shadow minister Chi Onwurah suggested this is industry (government should stick to improving infrastructure and public trust), but members of the audience seemed less convinced. Others pointed at IoT standards bodies but, as scientist and journalist Alasdair Allan rightly argued, standards bodies simply ratify these – they don’t drive the formation of standards.
Inactivity, or worse over activity – as is currently the case, will be a massive hindrance to consolidating standards.
Platform consolidation can’t come quickly enough
The most enjoyable and eye-opening panel from the conference was on platforms, containing some experienced names from Google, Wind River and Beecham Research.
Numbers vary – some say the number of platforms today vary from 260 to 400, although this is clearly a very generic term that can apply to device management or up to the data analytics layer. Defining a platform is the root of the problem, and a cynic may argue that some vendors are jumping on this bandwagon to grab new business.
Alex Gluhak, lead technologist for the IoT at the UK government-backed Digital Catapult, touched on this, saying most of the 400 platforms are currently proprietary and thus don’t connect with the outside world.
“There’s little interest currently to work towards interoperability from ecosystem overall. There are some researcher geeks who say that two platforms work together….We’re seeing this trend overall slowly, in industrial – for instance Bosch and GE are competitors in the industrial space but they are now working together.”
Ultimately though, this just adds to the end user’s state of confusion – ironically meaning they’re perhaps more likely to work with a big system integrator (a one-stop shop) to reduce the complexity.
Seb Chakraborty, CTO of Hive, seemingly echoed this thought, suggesting many of the platform players will eventually fall under one big giant, such as Amazon’s AWS IoT.
We could see this in greater detail this week as Forrester unveiled its top IoT platforms. The usual suspects were there – but for many end users at least, it’s hard to see the wood from the trees.
Indeed, in its report released this week, Forrester labelled IoT software platforms as part of a “complex, diverse, rapidly changing ecosystem.”
“The complete IoT vendor landscape is crowded, with a wide variety of IoT specialist vendors, enterprise technology firms, public cloud vendors, global telecom providers, and systems integrators positioning their software solutions to help firms simplify the tasks of connecting, deploying, and operating IoT-enabled product,” wrote the authors.
It’s not a technology problem – but technology is a barrier
I am getting a little tired of people saying IoT is not a technology problem. We get it, it’s about business innovation, improving processes, business models and procedures, enhancing customer experiences etc.
However, as above, a lot of these barriers are steeped in technology – which ultimately stop businesses from adopting – nay, even understanding – IoT.
What protocols do you use for these devices to communicate? What sensors do you deploy, how do they connect, what partners do you work with? These are just some questions to consider. There are some 14 different layers of the IoT stack that need to be considered and understood before adoption is possible.
Rami Avidan, head of Tele2’s IoT division and previously founder of Wyless, gave some actual guidance on how to start your IoT project. He said firms need to get an internal champion, have board approval and essentially have a future vision for the project.
But it’s still not clear how the IT and business departments work together to launch a project. We’ve already heard of failed pilots where technology has been bought in by one department, such as marketing, and ultimately discarded by IT. Communication and collaboration is key.
Security problems just getting started
IoT security is a huge topic of concern right now and rightly so. If anything, the security vendor community – which has been known to overhype certain threats to say the least, isn’t giving this enough attention.
For example, I was speaking with Ken Munro, MD of Pen Test Partners, at the show. Ken and his team have focused on hacking IoT devices for a while (don’t worry, he’s a researcher, folks…) and he’s exposed vulnerabilities on everything from connected dolls to toasters, DVRs and smart TVs.
He told me that the recent Mirai botnet was mainly reliant on vulnerable DVRs from a Chinese manufacturer. So, when we take this into account, and the fact that the overall number of vulnerable devices was only around 20,000 (compared to the 100,000 quoted in some areas), it’s scary how much bigger IoT attacks can become. Let’s not forget that Mirai was a 1TB DDoS attack. 1 Terabyte…caused by 20,000 measly devices. Our cyber-criminal friends are going to have a lot more fun if, as Gartner predicts, there are some 6.4 billion devices set to be IP-connected.
But away from dolls, IoT attacks have a much larger consequence, as Onwurah said.
“We must ensure that we are only secure as weakest link – we have to ensure those kinds of attacks can’t happen, or they can be cordoned off, limited, and recognized. If website and communication tools can be ground to halt by hackers, our economy can be.
“Most importantly, my constituents’ lives can be. If we don’t take action, if government doesn’t take regulatory actions, that’s where the real barriers to growth are with the Internet of Things.”
Adam Leach, R&D director at Nominet, perhaps summed up the situation the best: “Identifying interoperable connectivity and security is now inhibiting IoT deployments.”
Our vision between reality and the future is skewed
Onwurah borrowed from a Bill Gates quote when she said that we often overestimate the tech in the first two years, and underestimate its impact going forward, and that is true of IoT currently. But we’re also far, far away from our grandeur visions of what IoT could become, with self-driving cars, self-ordering fridges and so on.
Scientist, journalist and hacker Alasdair Allan perhaps summed this up best.
“Most IoT ‘things’ talk to people, but how sustainable is that? The things aren’t talking to each other – in long term that has to go away.”
The original version of this article appeared on our weekly IoT newsletter. Click here to sign-up!