Many cultures have different versions of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The man touching the trunk describes the elephant much differently than the one touching a leg, and there are yet other descriptions from those touching the tusks, tail, ears and -- well, you get the picture.
Now there's a new technology elephant to assess: the Internet of Things. With IoT, connectivity and computing are no longer limited to conventional computers and are now reaching more and more devices, creating an increasingly connected world for consumers and businesses alike. Everyone agrees that IoT projects will lead to an explosion of data, and lots of companies are busily trying to figure out how to turn it into actionable information. However, different kinds of vendors are talking about different parts of the IoT elephant without addressing it as a whole.
Sensor makers talk about all the data they're generating from manufacturing equipment, pipelines and other IoT devices, and how great it will be for users to be able to analyze the information. But sensor data won't just magically appear in Hadoop clusters or other types of big data systems, and I haven't heard of big data vendors working with the sensor companies to build standardized APIs between their technologies.
Other high-level needs aren't being discussed as well. It's amusing that this year's SXSW conference had a talk titled "Real World: Life of Data from Sensor to Analysis," with panelists from Airbus, National Instruments and Intel -- but no networking company was among them to say how it's going to help handle the IoT data load. And what of networking vendors in general? Again, no clear answers. They need to be a bridge between devices and IoT platforms, but the full story on that isn't being told.
Big things possible with IoT analytics
So, everyone is touting the wonders of IoT, but what's needed is a more complete view of what it will take to make IoT data an integral part of business decision making. And it does have a big role to play in helping companies to improve both their top and bottom lines. Let's look at some of the business drivers of IoT projects in key functional areas.
Manufacturing. Manufacturing systems have long incorporated sensors to enable companies to both monitor manufacturing processes and analyze data from plant-floor devices for maintenance uses. Those are bottom-line business activities, providing insight into and control over expensive equipment to help lower production costs. However, the benefit of device information isn't limited to short-term optimization of individual production lines.
Predictive maintenance becomes more feasible when manufacturers pool together data from hundreds or thousands of devices in Hadoop systems and other repositories. Production data can also help them address risk and compliance issues, potentially lowering costs and preventing losses from accidents or from being outside of contractual or regulatory requirements. For such uses, integrating sensor data captured via IoT with info in business systems is a path to better operations and higher profitability.
Operations. When I think of where IoT applications are making inroads here, two types of transportation uses come to mind. There's the obvious case of people movement: Devices installed in cars, planes and trains and on highways, traffic lights, rail lines and elsewhere monitor operations and issues that affect both travel time and safety. Also, sensors on oil and gas pipelines and electrical transmission lines can send data about what's happening on them back to operations control centers; the operational data can also be meshed with global marketing data to analyze whether the infrastructure can handle expected bursts in demand or to better prepare for downturns.
Logistics. The tracking of items in transit is being rapidly improved by smart labels attached to them. We're not talking about parcel service packages with simple bar codes being read by scanners. Think construction: Manufacturers are using smart RFID tags to track equipment and materials going to construction sites. And that's not all. On a site, the tags can link to IT systems to help construction managers identify materials that are on hand and use the information to better plan work schedules.
Customer service. Customer service is the first thing many people think of when IoT projects are being discussed. Smart refrigerators that provide status information to their owners -- and maybe even tell them when they need more milk -- have long been bandied about. More in the here and now, intelligent thermostats and building control systems enable more efficient heating and lighting in both residential and commercial buildings through data-driven automation of settings. And analyzing IoT data from fitness trackers and other wearable devices lets their makers send information back to users on how they stack up on activity compared to others.
Time to get together on IoT platforms
Those examples show some of the business benefits in reach through IoT investments and initiatives. But as the devices connected to the IoT continue to proliferate, all the vendors that have been talking about it in a void -- sensor makers, big data management and analytics vendors, networking companies -- must start to communicate with each other.
Maybe a standards group (or multiple groups because, as the saying goes, standards are so important that everyone wants to have one) needs to gather all the blind men and do some surgery on their eyes so they can see the entire beast that is IoT. Either way, vendors need to step back a bit and take a look. It's not a trunk. It's not a leg. It's not a tail. It's an elephant.
About the author
David A. Teich is principal consultant at Teich Communications, a technology consulting and marketing services company. Teich has more than three decades of experience in the business of technology. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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