Information Technology (IT) departments have had a rough time over the past few years with technology outstripping their ability to control it. The Y2K problem flipped the industry on its head, as thousands of pieces of software that had been installed to improve efficiency and save money suddenly required a massive investment in time and energy to prevent them from destroying the businesses that had installed them. Then, the proliferation of consumer-oriented devices and easily accessed web services started allowing end-users to bypass the IT department entirely.
What an IoT World Will Look Like
Now, just as IT departments are starting to get a handle of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and the consumerization of services, another new challenge has cropped up: the Internet of Things.
The Internet of Things describes the increasing incorporation into physical devices of processors and networking capability to allow them to interface with other nearby devices, or, with an Internet gateway, with any other Internet-connected device, anywhere in the world. Coke machines, coffee makers, security cameras, washers and dryers, all of these platforms and more now come with integrated processors and networking capability.
Whereas previous efforts at connectivity had focused on connecting devices intended for use directly by human beings, the IoT is branching out with the idea that machines might work more efficiently if they were connected to one another. Machine-to-machine (M2M) communication prevails on the IoT, allowing thermostats to talk to electrical meters, vending machines to talk to distribution centers, factory robots to talk to customer fulfillment systems. Taking humans out of the loop of easily automated processes has long been a hallmark of Information Technology. But the IoT promises to be different.
For starters, it's not always clear when otherwise ordinary devices have IoT capabilities. A coffee machine that can talk to the Internet looks pretty much like any other kind of coffee machine. IT departments, charged with managing and securing their local networks, can easily be unaware of IoT devices brought in deliberately or innocently by users and connected inside the firewall.
Previously Nonthreatening Object Can Become a Risk
This, of course, is a security breach waiting to happen. Hacking a coffee pot doesn't sound particularly threatening. But when that coffee pot is inside the corporate security perimeter, it can be used as a launch pad for all kinds of nefarious activities. IoT devices are often built around commonly used, and extremely capable, processors and embedded operating systems. Hackers familiar with this hardware and software can often repurpose it to devastating effect.
In other ways, the Internet of Things is likely to resemble the challenge introduced by the consumerization of software services, in that it will offer users capabilities that the IT department itself is powerless to match. This provides a powerful incentive to bypass IT intentionally.
Networking Effects of IoT
Finally, the networking effects of these devices will place loads on IT equipment which cannot easily be forecast or accommodated. WiFi-enabled IoT devices, for instance, may place loads on network wireless access points that had been carefully calibrated to support only the number of end-user devices provisioned for the office network. Signal space can easily become saturated, leading to degradation of service for all users.
And the already quickly shrinking availability of IP (Internet Protocol) address space will only be exacerbated by an influx of IoT devices. Every single one of them requires a unique IP address. Again, DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) address assignment pools in most corporate environments have been calibrated to support only devices used directly by staff, a necessarily limited number. When every stapler also requires its own IP address, the pools will quickly run dry.
Ultimately, the Internet of Things is likely to prove as big a boon to corporate productivity as other advances in Information Technology. But many IT departments will be in for another rough ride as they figure out how to cope with the challenge of integrating the new devices.