Like it or not, the world is growing more connected with each passing day. I’m not just talking about smartphones, desktops, and notebooks; I’m not simply referring to the growing power and spread of the Internet. No, I’m talking about the fact that more and more businesses are equipping traditionally “dumb” devices with Internet connectivity, hooking them up to a proprietary cloud platform.
It’s a trend known colloquially as the Internet of Things, and it may represent one of the most disruptive technological shifts we’ve ever seen. The implications for enterprise are positively earth-shattering: thanks to new sensor technology, businesses are being transformed into complex technological ecosystems; entities with eyes and ears in every place that matters. Not surprisingly, this means that the IoT is quite closely related to two other well-known trends within enterprise: big data and cloud computing.
Let’s back up a bit. Too often, discussions about the IoT get bogged down by vagaries and jargon – they end up being derailed by people who simply spout buzzwords without really understanding what they’re saying. That isn’t what we’re here to do.
We’re actually here to have a discussion. We’re here to address how embedded sensor technology stands poised to completely change how businesses create and distribute their products; how, through both cloud computing and big data, it’s one of the most valuable technological developments since the birth of the Internet. Let’s get started.
The Power Of IoT: The General Electric Story
I’m sure you’ve all heard a great deal about what the Internet of Things can do – how it can provide you with insights into problems you never knew you had. How it can provide you with a more complete picture of your business, your employees, and your customer than ever before. I’m not going to tell you what the IoT can do for your business.
I’m going to show you.
A few years ago, General Electric – formerly one of the top dogs in the manufacture of industrial hardware – had fallen on hard times. The company, well over a century old, had fallen well behind in providing its customers with what they wanted. Increasingly, formerly loyal clients were turning to computing firms and big data startups for solutions that GE was unable to provide.
It’s not an uncommon story, really. A business that’s been around for decades is hit full in the face by the effects of a market shift, and begins falling apart as it struggles to adapt. GE wouldn’t have been the first organization to go the way of the dinosaurs, nor would it have been the last.
The top brass at the company had other ideas.
They wouldn’t let something so irrelevant as a technological shift put them out of business. In 2011, General Electric put forth a multibillion dollar project designed to completely revolutionize its product portfolio. Its machines – all of which were ‘dumb’ industrial devices – were equipped with advanced sensor technology and connected to a newly-developed dynamic cloud platform, complete with built-in analytics. Finally, it also embraced crowdsourced development.
To this new amalgamation of technology and services, General Electric gave a name: The Industrial Internet.
General Electric didn’t just tack on a few sensors and call it a day. It didn’t just pick up a cloud platform and claim to be keeping with the times. It made a fundamental change to its core business model; a change that no one could have possibly seen coming only a few decades ago:
It became a service provider rather than a manufacturer.
“In a connected world,” writes Gordon Hui of The Harvard Business Review, “products are no longer one-and-done. Thanks to over-the-air updates, new features and functionality can be pushed to the customer on a regular basis. The ability to track products in use makes it possible to respond to customer behavior.”
In turn, says Hui, this allows organizations to add significantly greater value to their products, while at the same time opening up entirely new revenue streams – field upgrades, customer subscriptions, access to advanced analytics software; you get the idea. Going back to the example of General Electric, its Smart Grid allowed it to generate $800 million in incremental income in 2013. That number is expected to reach $1 billion this year.
Not bad, right? By this point, it should be pretty clear that the Internet of Things, when properly utilized, can be extremely valuable for an organization. But new business models and alternative revenue streams are only the tip of the iceberg where IoT is concerned – it’s changing considerably more than that.
IoT And The Cloud: The Rise Of Fog Computing
The cloud is an incredibly valuable technological innovation – I don’t think you’ll find a decision maker or tech expert who’ll try to argue otherwise. Unfortunately, there’s one area in which the traditional cloud falls woefully short. It simply isn’t equipped to deal with the scores of connected devices created by the Internet of Things.
The reason for this is tied to how the cloud is designed. See, traditional cloud computing is highly centralized. Everything in a cloud is managed by a data center or server.
That’s all well and good when you’ve only a regular network to manage, but what happens when you start introducing smart devices? What happens when you start bringing in connected machines, motors, lighting systems, or industrial equipment, all generating immense volumes of data in real-time?
I think you can probably work out the answer – and in both cases, it’s not pretty.
Enter Fog Computing.
“Fog computing, like many IT developments, grew out of the need to address a couple of growing concerns: being able to act in real-time to incoming data and working within the limits of available bandwidth,” explained Cisco’s Todd Baker to Biz Tech. “We live in a real world where bandwidth is neither infinite nor free. There’s a lot of data being generated. We talk about 50 billion sensors by 2020. If you look today at all the sensors that are out there, they’re generating 2 exabytes of data. It’s too much data to send to the cloud. There’s not enough bandwidth, and it costs too much money.”
So how does Fog Computing solve that problem? Simple. Instead of making everything centralized, it moves things to the edge of the network.
“Currently, most enterprise data is pushed up to the cloud, stored, and analyzed, after which a decision is made and action taken,” writes Biz Tech’s Alexander Slagg. “This system isn’t efficient. Fog computing allows computing, decision-making and action-taking to happen via IoT devices, and only pushes relevant data to the cloud.”
In other words, Fog Computing is an evolution of cloud computing, born out of the need to address the growing demands of the Internet of Things, By implementing edge devices capable of analyzing and examining data collected from the IoT, fog computing decentralizes the cloud, making it significantly more efficient in the process.
Not surprisingly, that has some pretty awesome implications for mobile technology, as well – lower data costs being one of the biggest.
IoT And Big Data: Data Exhaust, Or The Biggest Source Of Untapped Insights
Data exhaust – the idea that everything we does leaves a trail of ‘junk data’ that can be analyzed with the right tools – is hardly a new idea. It existed back when the Internet of Things was still a relatively new concept; most people with even a fledgling understanding of big data have at least heard about it. So, if it’s such a dated thing, why are we even talking about it at all?
Simple – because the Internet of Things gives us the capacity to analyze data exhaust through avenues we didn’t even think remotely possible. In the connected world that many have foreseen, everything we do – from waking up in the morning and brushing our teeth to our commute to work right down to what type of coffee we drink – will leave some sort of data behind, as smart devices become more widespread.
See where I’m going with this? That data, if properly analyzed, could allow us to quantify ourselves – our activities and behaviors – in ways we never even dreamed of before. It’s an idea that’s equal parts fascinating and terrifying, I’ll admit; but like it or not, this is where we’re headed.
Whatever future the IoT has in our society, big data is going to be right there beside it, giving businesses a more complete, comprehensive picture of both themselves and their consumers.
The Internet of Things is more than just a buzzword. Embedded sensor technology is affecting a fundamental change in the enterprise – everything from business models to computing to analytics is feeling the effects of the shift. We’re standing at the dawn of a new era, folks – are you ready for it?