A year ago, people were mostly talking about the potential of the Internet of Things (IoT) -- what companies and government entities might do in the future to take advantage of this widespread network of connected objects.
While we're still in the early stages of IoT, today it's looking like more of a reality, with a number of implementations in the works. And while many issues still need to be sorted out -- data security and privacy for one -- a growing number of companies are exploring how they can leverage IoT-related technologies.
IoT is clearly on a growth curve. A March 2014 Gartner report estimates that the Internet of Things will include some 26 billion Internet-connected physical devices by 2020. By that time, IoT product and service suppliers will generate incremental revenue of more than $300 billion, according to Gartner.
"IoT is rapidly moving from the fringe of the Internet to the mainstream," says Tim Murdoch, head of digital services at Cambridge Consultants, a U.K.-based technology consulting firm.
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The number of anecdotes about the "connected fridge" are abating, Murdoch says, and the number of actually connected and commercially available cars, electricity meters, street lights, wearable technologies and so on is growing rapidly.
Gartner is getting a lot more inquiries from enterprise clients on the IoT, says Hung LeHong, vice president and Gartner fellow, Executive Leadership & Innovation at Gartner. "Most of them are about getting started," he says. "Either getting started from nothing or IT getting started in working with operational technology counterparts to deliver a true IoT strategy."
Developing and deploying IoT projects isn't without challenges. These include choosing the best architectures for each use case, a lack of connectivity standards, a lack of systems integrators with a track record, and delivering ease of use for consumers and enterprise users, LeHong says.
"A big issue is standards and interoperability," adds Daniel Castro, director of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation's Center for Data Innovation in Washington. "Building the IoT will require massive amounts of cooperation and coordination between firms."
Fortunately, companies are getting better at recognizing the benefits of working together to develop common platforms that they can each use. Castro says, "We do not want the IoT to be a closed system -- it should be an open system for innovation," he says.
Another issue is figuring out what business problems or domains you're trying to address. "Otherwise, you throw so much data out there it's hard to scope through," says Chris Curran, chief technologist at the U.S. advisory practices of consulting firm PwC in New York.
"If you don't have a business problem or domain to begin with, it will be hard to scope out a manageable set of projects," Curran says. Companies will need to learn how to deal with all the data collection, storage and management involved, he says.
And of course ensuring IoT data security is a big challenge for the industry. Despite these issues, there are IoT initiatives under way today. Here are a few examples from different industries.
HydroPoint Data Systems, a water management company in Petaluma, Calif., is leveraging real-time, two-way wireless communications via AT&T's machine-to-machine network; big data analytics and the cloud to offer customers an automated system that eliminates water waste while monitoring and protecting against damages caused by leaks and runoff.
The system, called WeatherTRAK, has more than 25,000 subscribers who in 2013 saved more than 20 billion gallons of water, 77 million kilowatt hours of electricity and about $143 million in expenses, according to Chris Spain, CEO and president of HydroPoint.
WeatherTRAK is a smart irrigation controller that replaces existing timers with an Internet-enabled controller that can comprehend data inputs delivered from the Internet -- such as weather data -- and provide proactive management to water supply maintainers via a Website and mobile application.
HydroPoint's platform connects a site's irrigation system and sprinklers, master valves, flow sensors, historical water bills, water budgets and site-specific weather data into an integrated management framework, Spain says.
"In the field, we utilize machine-to-machine communications, data over power lines and wireless communications back to the cloud," Spain says. The company, "really couldn't deliver our service without IoT in any cost effective fashion," Spain says. "Water management systems, by their very nature, can change from one moment to the next so having real-time monitoring is essential."
Pirelli, one of the world's largest tire manufacturers, is gaining insights about the performance of its products in near-real time directly from sensors embedded in the tires.
Using SAP's HANA data analytics platform, the Milan, Italy, company can manage the enormous amounts of data from its Cyber Tyre products. The tires contain sensors that collect data about tire conditions and performance that influence safety, control and vehicle dynamics.
The tire-mounted sensors enable fleet managers to remotely view tire pressure and temperature, as well as the mileage for each tire. With the HANA platform, the company can run reports on product performance and deliver timely and accurate sales and distribution information, which can lead to more efficient manufacturing and business processes.
According to SAP, Pirelli is building systems to enable the integration of vehicle position and operating data for purposes such as vehicle protection and control; information about traffic, road conditions and parking; remote vehicle behavior and diagnostics; management of logistics and of industrial vehicle fleets; and automated emergency calls.
Shorenstein Properties, a San Francisco-based real estate business, recently retrofitted parking lot light fixtures at its Santa Clara Towers office complex to LEDs, and at the same time integrated networking capabilities, creating a "Light Sensory Network" (LSN).
The sensor network, provided by Sensity Systems, links the LED fixtures to deliver both energy-efficient lighting and a real-time, global database of information that enables organizations to better manage physical environment to improve efficiency and security.
With the installation of the network, the facility benefits from an additional energy savings of 30% to 50% over the new LED baseline usage levels, according to Stan Roualdes, executive vice president, Property Management and Construction Services at Shorenstein.
"Continued success with networked LED lights doesn't depend just on Sensity or upon the current selection of sensors, it will be on the developers who will leverage Sensity's open API to develop new sensors and new applications that we can leverage," Roualdes says.
An LSN "can gather real-time parking availability data and provide this information to smart parking application developers through an open API," Roualdes adds. This can lead to improved services that benefit customers, and new opportunities for Shorenstein. "We see our LSN as a potential revenue-generating opportunity in the future," he says. "Our lighting fixtures can become strategic assets."
Florida Hospital Celebration Health, a hospital in Kissimmee, Fla., opened a new patient tower in 2011 designed to serve as a model for the healthcare industry relative to the latest developments in patient experience and safety, as well as staff efficiency.
The hospital deployed a real-time location system (RTLS) from Stanley Healthcare to track the location of critical medical equipment, automate the monitoring of refrigerator temperatures throughout the facility, and collect more accurate data on hand hygiene compliance.
One particularly interesting application has been a nurse tracking initiative, in which the hospital collects data on nurse activity throughout their shifts.
The goal of the initiative is to better understand how nurses spend their time during their shift and uncover patterns that could lead to increased efficiency and patient satisfaction, says Ashley Simmons, director of performance improvement.
Nurses wear badges with embedded Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags throughout their shift. The system tracks and collects location data continuously. The facility collects all the data and analyzes it using analytics functions in Stanley Healthcare's MobileView software integrated with Tableau visual analytics software, and also uses its own internal business intelligence tools.
"We now have a better understanding of each patients' care time requirements and are able to better align staff assignments on the unit based on this information," Simmons says. The data is even revealing ways the company can design units more efficiently.
Last year, Ford Motor Co. launched Connected Car Dashboards, a collaborative project with Splunk Enterprise and Cisco that collected and analyzed data from vehicles to gain insight into driving patterns and vehicle performance.
The company used its Ford OpenXC research platform to gather data from connected vehicles. Data was then indexed, analyzed and visualized in Splunk's machine-generated big data platform and made available in a Connected Car Dashboards, which include visualizations specific to both electric and gas-powered vehicles.
Ford OpenXC is a combination of open source hardware and software that enables developers to read data from a vehicle's internal communications network. By installing a small hardware module to read and translate metrics from vehicles, the data becomes accessible to smartphone or tablet devices that can be used to develop custom applications.
Many of the metrics gathered have never before been available for vehicles, and show insights about driving behavior that could extend to consumer and commercial applications, according to Splunk. Insights gained from the open data project include analysis of the accelerator pedal position, vehicle speed, steering, wheel position, etc.
Expect to see a lot more examples of IoT emerge in the coming months as the technology that supports it evolve and companies grasp the potential benefits.
Security and the IoT
Information security -- and privacy -- are among the worries many companies have when it comes to the Internet of Things. How do you prevent physical objects such as cars and smart meters from getting hacked?
"Public safety and privacy are the real concerns," says LeHong.
"Organizationally, the operations folks and the IT folks have to work together to take operational security and IT security to an overall cyber security perspective," LeHong says. "The two areas will be so intertwined that these groups will have to work together -- and maybe even become one group -- to be effective."
A lot of natural reticence to share data "has evaporated around the apps and social media that we use and the cookies we accept," says Murdoch. "But expect there to be a greater level of concern about devices because of the greater intrusion to our daily lives."
Security is really about trust and scale, Murdoch says. "Expect to see different approaches to peoples' data and defaults to not using their data for anything but the actual service being offered," he says. "Quality of service from a brand will become a key tool in addressing this."
Organizations can "expect to see a number of incidents where IoTs are hacked, data stolen and services denied," Murdoch adds. This is especially likely for startups that have not funded adequate security architectures, he says.
In terms of scale, a device that can be used by many different people and different stages of its life will cause problems, Murdoch says, especially when there are billions of them. There will be a need to test and provide quality of services on many different platforms, he says.
Bob Violino is a freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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This story, "The Internet of Things Gets Real" was originally published by Network World.