by Fred Hapgood

Managing Networked Devices

Mar 15, 20068 mins

CIOs were invented because the boundless promise of IT generated an equally boundless swamp of confusion and technical perplexity. Ever since, CIOs have been by nature at least one part geek and proud of it—although that reputation sometimes has been a bit of a handicap when navigating the corporate ladder.

Several events on the horizon, however, suggest that the tone of the job may be changing. For better or worse, CIOs might be turning into people people. If so, their ladder skills might be in line for an upgrade.

Ironically, part of this trend is driven by the fact that networks are being transformed from systems with people at their nodes to systems whose primary role is the interconnection of physical devices, from locks and lights and cameras and motors to vehicles and bar-code readers and on and on. These new architectures are usually called device networks, or, in aggregate, “the Internet of things.”

The attraction driving this reconstruction is the promise of a huge increase in the flexibility and productivity of operations. Security cameras are an example. Today, in most cases, a guard sits at a desk, casually watching a half-dozen monitors—and that’s it. Maybe once a month he sees something worth noting. Network the same feed, however, and sales can use it to assess the effectiveness of floor displays, personnel can monitor employee performance, facilities can watch the progress of cleaning and repair work, and so on. Suddenly, the system is contributing 7/52, if not 24/7. This point can be illustrated equally well with almost any other sensor or actuator, such as keycard readers, vibration sensors on motors, or motion detectors controlling the lighting and heating in bathrooms.

Of course, any CIO worth his reserved parking space will see an underside immediately. Device networking is not new. Twenty years ago people started hooking printers to the Net. What a nightmare that was. All the drivers had to be coded by hand. It took five years to get the technology in shape. Isn’t device networking going to be a thousand times worse? The devices will face the same authentication and security any human user would, plus they will need to be maintained. Given that physical access to a lot of these devices will range from limited right up to impossible, how are those issues going to be handled? Compatibility is sure to be another headache. Devices will come in dozens of kinds, with several manufacturers for each. All these varieties, together with their upgrades, plus all the new devices no one has thought of yet, are going to need to interact seamlessly. The network specs are not even the same: Humans like lots of bandwidth but usually can tolerate reasonable latency; devices generally require very little bandwidth (except for cameras) but do best with low latencies (since they are interacting with machines).

Solutions for the Dancing CIO

But the modern startup culture is working quickly, and many initiatives are afoot (see “From Reliable to Convenient,” this page) to automate or simplify these problems. Solutions are already being installed. Recently, Saddle Creek, a logistics provider with warehouses around the country, networked all its bar-code readers (handheld, truck-mounted and wearable), enabling any manager anywhere in the enterprise to monitor the status of the equipment. The company uses technology from Wavelink to monitor device and network performance, download and install patches and upgrades, and control security definitions. Kathy Fulton, manager of technical services at Saddle Creek, calls this “distance management.” “The need for onsite technical support has been taken out of the equation,” she says.

The New World of CIO Politics

Beyond this mountain, however, lies another. The essence of device networking is moving static, single-constituency data feeds and control loops across borders, vocabularies and cultures, both inside the enterprise and up and down the value chain. Changes like these pose problems of recruitment, education and trust. These problems are political, not technical.

Earlier in this decade the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) encountered these issues when it decided to renovate Interstate 235, the freeway running through the center of Des Moines. Highways have been enthusiastic users of IT since the ’60s, when roadbed traffic sensors started to control traffic lights. By the 1970s, highway construction projects routinely incorporated full-fledged star networks, with communications running back and forth between a control core and an ever-expanding list of peripheral devices, including dynamic signage, cameras, weather sensors and electronic toll collection.

All this experience has made highway engineers early adopters in the device networking revolution. Thus IDOT decided to make I-235’s new intelligent transportation system (ITS) into a data-sharing platform that would accommodate the full range of devices and users, both current and potential. In this system, emergency vehicle call centers anywhere would be able to route responding units through the lowest traffic densities using images from surveillance cameras as guides. Citizens, even in other cities, would be able to consult the output of traffic-mapping algorithms. Interfaces would be open and standardized, so new applications could be snapped into place.

IDOT representatives began visiting the potential user groups, explaining the new system and its possibilities. Often they ran into education issues. One 911 center, for instance, said that while the system looked nice, the center was too busy to take on responsibility for managing another data input. The IDOT team members asked if they could come to watch operations. At one point, an IDOT rep noticed that the call handlers routinely ran searches in the data banks of the county assessor’s offices to find photos of the property at the origin address of a call (to be able to tell responding units about building entrances). Michael Jackson, special projects engineer and manager of the project, jumped on the analogy, arguing that IDOT’s system was just like that, only with a traffic situation instead of a building. The center thought it over and today is a happy user of the technology. “You have to get your feet in the door,” Jackson says. “Without putting a guy in there to watch how they did business, we would have had no way of doing that.” (You can admire the final result at

Why the CIO Leads

Under device networking, every data feed and control loop becomes a product or service that can be sold, bartered or used to sweeten some other deal. Suppose you have equipment that draws a lot of power but has some flexibility as to when it operates. If the control loop for that equipment is networked, you might be able to interest the local utility in trading a break on energy prices for the right to turn it on when utilization is lowest. Suppose your own product is a machine. If you build networked performance sensors into each one, every day, all the machines you have sold could e-mail you descriptions of their condition.

The Future of the CIO

Someone has to be responsible for identifying, creating, packaging and selling these deals. In theory, it could be anyone, but CIOs are probably the ideal candidates because in most enterprises they will be the only managers who are both network-centric and have a holistic view of the enterprise and its value chain. Fredrik Nilsson, general manager of network camera maker Axis Communications, points out that we already have at least one illustration of the argument: the central role of CIOs in the implementation of IP telephony.

As the IDOT story suggests, these implementations require an appreciation of human sensitivities. For instance, suppose your company is inspired by the example of the security cameras. How are you going to tell security that control of “their” cameras is being taken away?

Nilsson suggests putting it another way. Instead, argue that since networked devices tend to be self-maintaining, device networking tends to liberate the department traditionally responsible for maintenance. Second, once a device is networked, pressure starts building from all directions in the enterprise to upgrade the devices and add to them.

In other words, networking devices usually leads to a larger system of higher quality, which is better for everyone, including security, which will get coverage of areas it never had before. Nilsson says that usually once such points are made, even people losing departmental control of their devices are happy to participate.

Of course, the proposition has to be made the right way. After all, consensus is built one yes at a time. Not every CIO will be up to the level of diplomacy required. Those who are, though, will be like mini-CEOs, practicing the kinds of skills that should give them a straight shot to the top.