In some cases, IoT platforms must support thousands of vendors, dozens of standards, and be able to scale to millions of devices, together sending and receiving billions of messages. Whether in the consumer or the industrial sector, this can get complicated.
In the consumer space, it is well publicized how nearly every device is becoming smarter and more connected. What receives less attention in mainstream media is the considerable impact the Internet of Things (IoT) is having in the industrial sector. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is already helping enterprises operate more safely and productively while improving efficiency and reducing costs.
While the IoT can offer significant benefits, they can be challenging to implement. Forbes Insights recently surveyed more than 500 executives and, when asked about their greatest challenge in building out their IoT capabilities, 29% said it was the quality of IoT technology. This isn’t surprising. In some cases, IoT platforms must support thousands of vendors, dozens of standards, and be able to scale to millions of devices, together sending and receiving billions of messages.
Challenges With Managing IoT Technologies Today
IoT-based solutions are typically made up of a group of technologies, some already existing and some entirely new. Each has its own path of development, and when they’re combined, they can create an environment that is complex and rapidly changing. Here are four challenges with managing IoT technologies today.
- Integrating New Technologies Into Existing Environments
In the era of the smartphone, it may seem as though every machine is connected and sharing information, but that’s not the case. In the consumer world, a mix of technologies are competing for dominance, and standardization remains elusive. As a result, relatively few homes, appliances and other consumer goods are actually IoT-enabled and connected.
In the industrial world, it gets even more complicated because of the nature of the investments. Capital equipment that has been in the field for 20 years or more is not always a viable target for replacement, as a stove or refrigerator may be in the consumer world. Retrofitting is often the only realistic solution to bring IoT capabilities to existing equipment. However, retrofitting is neither simple nor assured. While connecting legacy equipment and systems offers big benefits and is an important step in the IoT initiatives at many industrial companies, the hurdles to implementation can be formidable.
That said, companies are making important strides in this area. They’re adding stand-alone sensors and cameras to existing environments and devices to monitor and collect data about machine performance and health. These sensors attach directly to existing devices and connect to gateways to securely collect and transmit data, which can then be analyzed and used to help prevent failures and downtime.
As Rich Rogers, SVP, product and engineering, industrial IoT portfolio at Hitachi Vantara, explains: “There’s a whole bunch of legacy stuff out there that needs to be integrated, and we’re looking at the best ways to do that. We’re thinking of a Fitbit-like approach for industrial machines. If legacy machines don’t have sensors built into them today, how can we attach them in a cost-effective manner? Doing so would enable us to begin measuring things like vibration, temperature, the climate where the machine is deployed, dust in the air and other factors. Cameras also play a big role, enabling companies, through a common platform, to pop open a video and get a real-time sense for where a machine is and how it’s being used.”
- Managing Complexity: Protocol Proliferation
Another big challenge in the deployment of the IIoT is the vast number of protocols. Some of the more common standards include:
- BLE (Bluetooth low energy)
In some ways, BLE, ZigBee, Z-Wave and Thread are similar. They’re all wireless technologies that use mesh networks to wirelessly connect and network IoT devices without involving a cellular or Wi-Fi signal. But they differ in the radio frequency they use, their operating range and the number of devices they can support at a given time. We-Mo, however, does require Wi-Fi, which eliminates the need for a hub or controller, and allows devices to connect directly via the internet. Two of the big disadvantages of this system are that it requires significantly more power and processing capability than other, lower-energy options.
Again, this is just a short list; the number of protocols is extensive. Each has its advantages and drawbacks, but since there is no single common standard, companies must determine the right protocol for each use case and ensure the technologies they choose are compatible with their overall platform. As standards continue to evolve, it may be advantageous to replace or upgrade along the way.
- Bringing Data In From The Edge: Networking Challenges
Beyond the many different protocols and disparate hardware, there are basic networking challenges that must be addressed to make IoT-enabled devices a reality. It starts with connectivity. The first step is to ensure that data is flowing quickly and reliably. Security is also critical, as IoT devices are more frequently becoming targets for hackers and cyberterrorists. When devices connect, they must authenticate, data must be encrypted, and they need to communicate their presence and activity.
Power consumption and bandwidth present other unique challenges. In a scenario where thousands of devices are communicating with one another, frequent signaling and transmission can be a drain on battery-operated devices. In those cases, minimal, efficient power usage is key. In a scenario where thousands of devices are communicating over wireless networks, bandwidth can become a concern, and costs can add up quickly. The goal must be to keep IoT data streams as compact and efficient as possible.
- Too Few Best Practices In Evolving Areas Of IoT
In the IT world, best practices are typically defined as procedures that are well-known and accepted to be the most effective. Today there’s a lack of best practices to help companies write code, manage the life cycle of certain IoT-related hardware and software, and deal with the unique types of breaches that can occur, including intrusions that are initiated at the device level.
Without best practices as a road map, programmers and IT professionals are traveling in uncharted waters. Consider the Mirai botnet attack in October 2016. During this incident, IT professionals saw firsthand how prolific a breach could be. While the incident was damaging, much was learned, including the importance of having an IoT security strategy and a plan for quick response and resolution of incidents.
As the IoT continues to proliferate, there are bound to be growing pains. Hardware will continue to advance and improve. Software will become more sophisticated. New standards, protocols and connectivity options will become more prevalent. But companies must remember to ensure that their new capabilities remain compatible with legacy systems and that existing processes account for innovation. With this type of approach, companies can more easily handle the speed of change that comes with the IoT and fully realize its benefits.
To learn more, visit https://www.forbes.com/forbes-insights/hitachi-vantara/internet-of-things-executive-summary/ and keep an eye out for the full report in early 2018.