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Pi and the sky: The AOL Stage of IoT

This is the second of a five-part blog series. Read part one here.

Ok, so now that we’ve covered the importance of digital transformation, a new product mindset and modern software development methodologies, let’s shift focus to IoT.

You’ve got mail (until you prefer Gmail)

Do you remember those AOL CDs you used to get? And once set up those three exciting words when you got your email? It took the world enough by storm for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan to make a whole movie about it.

In the beginning of internet scale (for people)

Many people used to think that AOL was the only way to get connected to the internet. AOL excelled because it dumbed it down and made it easy to connect, learn and build communities. In the greater scheme of things, sure, it was relatively limited in function, but it worked well for a lot of people.

Then people started to learn about Google and its powerful search capabilities and realized you could type a keyword into a search engine instead and get even better results. Later, people shifted to direct internet connections and explored increasingly rich websites and along came those little trends of e-commerce, mobile and social.

IoT is about more than cheap devices and ubiquitous connectivity

Of course, lots of people have been building IoT-like technologies since before it was even called IoT, but the term really reflects embedded computing hitting scale. IoT is, of course, being driven by lower silicon costs, increased connectivity and the rise of the cloud, but equally important are these other trends, which have created an increasing demand for real-time information, an ever-increasing network effect and a pressing need to stay competitive. Combined with the maker movement and the likes of Kickstarter and Indiegogo, these trends have really accelerated the innovation cycle.

And yet, despite an increasing ramp in IoT projects and interest from key stakeholders, I like to say we’re in the “AOL stage of IoT,” just getting things online in scale.

OT and IT — the preeminent IoT conference Venn diagram

Speaking of stakeholders, it seems like you can’t go to an IoT event without seeing some variation of a Venn diagram with circles labeled OT and IT intersecting. Maybe some cute graphics of people with hardhats versus laptops for good measure. Before we go deeper on the technology side, it’s important to touch on the dynamics between these two key organizations because it’s a part of the reason why I say we’re in the AOL stage.

OT is all about uptime

Operations technology (OT) is historically about overseeing operations rooted in the physical world, and for them it’s all about uptime, efficiency and quality. As a result, the OT mindset has historically been “don’t touch it as long the process is running.” Despite having a highly sophisticated operation, an OT organization often has with no idea of what’s happening with that process in the moment, for example product quality. Instead, the team typically would only find out about an issue later in some summary report — something that’s increasingly expensive the further a defective part gets from the factory, especially if it makes its way to a customer.

Frankly, the notion of continuous software delivery freaks the typical OT person out. It’s for good reason because downtime in the OT world typically has immediate impact to production or safety. This is also why security is paramount and security by obscurity (i.e., by segmenting off operations from broader networks, much less the internet) has been the norm.

IT is about security, governance and reducing costs

On the other hand, you have IT — an organization that has historically been a cost center whose efforts are increasingly being commoditized. As such, IT has been embracing cloud to reduce costs for the past 10-plus years while savvy IT professionals have been adapting to help their business counterparts and developers modernize the way they build and deploy applications.

Security is also paramount to IT, but unlike OT, impacts of IT security breaches play out over long periods of time and often in great scale. For example, for a breach leading to stolen credit card numbers, the financial implications can be long-lasting and in great scale. IT understands security and manageability and scale.

OT and IT organizations have historically been at odds with one another because they’re motivated by different things. However, convergence of their skill sets is important for scaling IoT systems and embracing digital transformation in general.

Of course, another key stakeholder here (who typically gets overlooked on the aforementioned preeminent IoT conference Venn diagram) is the line of business. This is often the group that ultimately owns the keys to the IoT castle because it drives the business and ultimately controls the money flow. It would get a snazzy power suit if included on the diagram.

Pi and the sky

To get the power of IoT, you need to connect the physical world to the digital, with the evolution typically starting with real-time monitoring for visibility and then moving to optimization through analytics and eventually automation.

OT folks are increasingly experimenting to get this visibility. I referenced the maker movement shortly ago and I see many proof-of-concept (PoC) projects out there starting with a Raspberry Pi-class device and the public cloud. I call this “Pi and the sky,” and developers and engineers do it because it’s easy to get started. Often, this involves shadow IT by completely bypassing their company’s IT networks to the cloud through cellular connectivity.

Making the business case and lining up stakeholders

I also call this trend Pi and the sky because many of these early efforts start with no real business case. Therefore we hear about so many failed IoT projects and these sorts of PoCs tend to get us technology providers stuck in what I call the dreaded “PoC friend zone.” In general, the first and second biggest challenges in IoT are business case and stakeholder alignment — well before technology.

Those that get pilots approved for production often quickly realize that they need to re-architect for scale, both in terms of the hardware they use but also in how the software is built. Maybe, it wasn’t such a good idea to hardcode to one public cloud when the data meter really gets humming!

Starting and scaling

We always recommend that all stakeholders work together from the outset. When projects are ready to hit scale, OT can especially benefit from partnering with IT for its knowledge in scaling compute infrastructure, security, manageability and modern software development principles.

In summary, I like to say IoT starts with OT but scales with IT. In my next blog, I’ll talk about the evitable shift to the edge due to the sheer number of things coming online. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your comments and questions.

Keep in touch. Follow me on Twitter @defshepherd and @DellEMCOEM, and join our LinkedIn OEM & IoT Solutions Showcase page here.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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