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What you need to know about IoT system integration

'E pluribus unum' could serve as the motto for IoT integration, the art of creating one system out of many components. CIOs can tap an external specialist to move in that direction.

An IoT project calls for a range of gear with sensors, connectivity, data processing and data management among the core components. IoT system integration is the task of pulling those pieces together to address customers' use cases and vertical market requirements.

The nature of integration has changed over time. In the early days of enterprise deployment, turnkey IoT systems didn't exist and heavy technical integration was the order of the day. Today, pre-integrated IoT starter kits, also called accelerators, can get projects off the ground.

While IoT initiatives may no longer resemble science projects, the technologies remain diverse. A CIO can't go to a single vendor and expect to purchase an all-in-one IoT system. Integration remains top of mind. If anything, the scope of integration has only increased. IoT's data processing component now spans public cloud platforms and edge computing. Analytics and AI have also become pieces of the IoT puzzle.

Consider a third-party integrator

Some organizations possess the in-house expertise to pull off an IoT integration project, but many don't. IT departments don't create an IoT system every day, so they may lack the critical skills, experience and institutional knowledge to get the job done.

CIOs and IT managers can hire a third-party IoT system integration firm to fill the skills gap with knowledge that comes from completing multiple customers projects. Such companies range from regional specialists to large, international service providers. Examples include professional services firms such as Accenture and Deloitte; large IT vendors such as HPE and IBM; and global systems integrators such as Cognizant, Insight, Tata Consultancy Services and Wipro.

Integrators contribute more than technical acumen. They also bring relationships with multiple IoT technology providers, an important consideration in a field where no single technology delivers the goods and vendor support is critical to the integration challenge. In addition, customers accelerate their projects when they avoid assembling their own IoT ecosystems.

Understand the scope of IoT system integration

IoT system integration projects can vary dramatically depending on what organizations need and where they stand on the technology adoption curve. An organization just embarking on IoT, for example, can retain a systems integrator to define its use case and launch a proof-of-concept project or limited deployment.

IT departments don't create an IoT system every day, so they may lack the critical skills, experience and institutional knowledge to get the job done.

Organizations further along with IoT, on the other hand, can use an integrator to scale their initial deployments to a wider range, such as from a single manufacturing cell to multiple cells or, potentially, multiple facilities. Integrators can also expand customer's deployments with additional use cases, such as growing a restaurant's IoT deployment from HVAC energy management to food safety.

The complexity of integration typically increases with the scope of the project. Integration with back-office IT systems becomes essential as IoT expands beyond the pilot stage and involves more organizational functions and their underlying IT systems. Information gleaned from machinery on the factory floor, for instance, may need to be fed into an ERP system. IoT adopters may also need organizational integration. CIOs who tether more machinery, devices and other assets to an IoT deployment will soon find themselves in the realm of operational technology (OT). Linking OT and IT stakeholders becomes paramount at this point.

Gauge what integrators deliver

IoT integration typically starts with consulting services. The first step should determine whether an organization's problem is something IoT can actually address. At this point, the integrator can also advise the client on other technologies to incorporate, which could mean anything from 5G networking to AI convergence. The consulting phase should also nail down an organization's use case, a key step considering the multiplicity of potential IoT roles.

Use cases will often revolve around an organization's vertical market, which makes a systems integrator's industry background particularly important. Integrators generally focus on a number of vertical markets or subsectors of vertical markets. This business knowledge lets integrator's tailor an IoT rollout to meet a customer's requirements.

With the increasing maturation of IoT, CIOs can generally expect integrators to provide some type of starter kit. Such offerings can jumpstart a project, but larger deployments will usually call for a higher degree of customization and integration.

The larger the deployment, the greater the effect on a business's operations, employees and partners. Integrators may also provide organizational change management services to help clients adjust to the new ways of doing business that IoT fosters.

Select an IoT system integrator

CIOs and IT managers evaluating systems integrators should look for companies with a track record of successful IoT deployments, vertical market expertise and a consultative approach. Cybersecurity is another top requirement, given the ever-expanding attack surface connected devices create. Market researcher Statista projected the IoT device population will hit 30.9 billion in 2025, more than doubling the 13.8 billion IoT-connected devices expected in 2021.

Other must-have attributes depend on an organization's level of IoT adoption. An IoT newcomer might want to look for an integrator with a prebuilt IoT offering, while an organization committing to an enterprise-wide deployment might place greater emphasis on change management.

An integrator's geographic reach will emerge as a selection criterion when IoT plans call for national or international coverage. Another factor to consider is the depth of the integrator's IoT ecosystem. The required components and integration points will multiply in lockstep with the IoT project's ambition. A bigger ecosystem provides more options for IT managers and facilitates sourcing and procurement.

Keep the cloud in mind

Public cloud platforms have become an integral part of IoT deployments, which, just a few years ago, were largely as private, on-premises projects. The cloud offers organizations a scalable resource for IoT data analytics. Public clouds such as AWS, Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure provide IoT services.

CIOs should make sure integrators have cloud computing skills, whether they need help building the cloud into a new deployment or migrating an older IoT system to the cloud

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