by Fred Hapgood

EMERGING TECHNOLOGY – Universally Connected

May 01, 20028 mins

The good news for CIOs is that there is no mystery about the next big step in IT. However much fog there might be around biotechnology or robotics or nanotechnology, virtually no one would disagree that during the next few years hordes of so-called dumb devices are going to find their way onto corporate networks. In the short- to mid-term, this influx may very well overwhelm the resources of the average IT office. And in the long-term, for better or worse, the situation could change IT beyond all recognition.

There are two classes of dumb devices: sensors (such as cameras, microphones, counters, meters, scanners, scales and position sensors), which measure physical changes; and actuators (motors, lights, switches, valves, manipulators, displays, loudspeakers, printers and locks), which impose such changes.

The primary benefit of connected devices is that they can communicate or connect with just the right person at just the right moment. Instead of maintenance technicians visiting each machine on a set schedule or checking every machine during a down period, networked sensors could send specific maintenance requests (“Water line three has a leak,” for example) to the best technician for that particular job, ensuring that every visit has a payoff.

New Feature; Less Money

When David Graham, director of IT operations at Vignette, a content management services provider in Austin, Texas, installed network-monitoring devices (from NetBotz) that were themselves networked, he was able to patch facilities management right into the heat sensors. “It took a bit of the pressure off us,” he says, noting that facilities management could now monitor the sensors directly. Previously, someone in IT needed to make a phone call whenever anything started going wrong.

Recently, the University of Louisville in Kentucky networked its printers (using digital printers from Xerox), allowing users to drive print jobs to the most efficient and convenient printer for each job. According to Ronald L. Moore, vice president of IT at the university, the returns were immediate (at least $500,000 a year). “The more people on a network, the greater the synergy,” he remarks. “Standalone devices are inherently less efficient–they are usually idle 95 percent of the time…. Standalone devices will always be necessary, but they should be the exception, not the rule.” His experience is not unique. Harbor Research, a Boston-based strategic consultancy, reports that device networking initiatives typically pay for themselves within two years or less.

Device networking also leads to more flexible services, because networked devices usually offer more powerful features and interfaces than standalone models do. Don McGill, director of voice engineering for CNET Networks, the San Francisco-based technology news company, recently moved company headquarter’s phones onto the internal corporate network in order to add new features, such as call history management, which lets users quickly look up and recall previously connected numbers. However, he cautions that it can be frustratingly difficult to get people to understand that they really do need training to get the most out of networked devices. “If you announce a class in Java programming, people understand they need it,” he says. “A class in using the phone tends to get skipped.” (Louisville’s Moore makes the same observation about training for networked printers.)

User Input

Until now, most devices have been monitored or controlled by a single type of user; for instance, security personnel watched security cameras. Connecting devices to an enterprise network could give every constituency in the enterprise access, letting IT departments build a host of new applications around the same peripherals. In the case of security cameras on a retail floor, for example, marketing might use the feed to see which product displays attract traffic, and personnel could watch video to select candidates for extra training.

Those tempting attractions explain why research companies such as Harbor predict that by 2010 more than 40 percent of all potentially networkable electronic or electromechanical devices will be connected. Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research reaches similar conclusions, predicting sales of 14 billion network-enabling chips by that year. In short, in a few years networks will start to be primarily about communication among devices, not among people.

This change implies a radical transformation in how we will configure and manage our networks. Bill Peisel, CTO of NetSilicon, a device connectivity vendor in Waltham, Mass., suspects many of those networked devices will be communicating directly among themselves, making peer-to-peer a more common communications model than client/server. And security will be more about good authentication than good encryption. “It’s not that important to encrypt the room temperature,” Peisel says. “It is important to deny access to the 13-year-old who thinks it would be really amusing to turn off the heat in the middle of the winter.” Device-oriented networks will probably need to be more robustly provisioned, and require redundancy and higher levels of automated maintenance built in at every level.

“We can lose a patient in seven seconds,” says Reza Sharafi, a product support engineer at Welch Allyn, a medical diagnostic, lighting and data-collection manufacturer in Skaneateles Falls, N.Y. “If the network goes down, we lose everything. We don’t want to hear that we can ’just reboot.’”

Device-oriented networks may well make it more difficult for companies to determine who will pay for what devices and network services as well. If security is perfectly happy with the old cameras, for instance, who pays for the new networked models? Suppose security needs to store the video feed for only 24 hours, but marketing and HR want to preserve it for months? Who gets billed for storage? Who will be responsible for supporting the software that will implement whatever bookkeeping formulas emerge from all these complex usage patterns? How will priorities be set in a time when dozens of devices are waiting to be connected? When heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC), for instance, becomes a network device, IT issues such as network security and provisioning will affect the heat, and facilities issues?such as maintenance?will have an impact on the network. How will that be resolved? Will CIOs have to learn more about field operations or will field managers have to learn more about networking?

Device networks also seem to increase the pressure for upgrades. When everyone can access all the printers in an enterprise, users who were once happy with the machine in their office start to send work to the most advanced model available. When five different departments suddenly find their hands on a device, like a security camera, originally designed for just one user type the natural next step is to tell IT which new models are ideal for each user.

Management Makeover

It also seems unlikely that the management structures that worked when the ratio of connected entities on an enterprise backbone to users was two or three to one will be as useful when that ratio is 10 or even a hundred times higher. “We are now at the point where we can network individual gears and bearings,” observes Joe Carpenter, president and CEO of Swantech, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., company that makes networked diagnostic equipment for industrial machinery.

As the number of devices on the network increases, some observers suspect that field operations may start to take over the management of network issues specific to their jobs. Chantal Polsonetti of the ARC Advisory Group, an automation consultancy based in Dedham, Mass., points out that field and network people have different operating cultures. CIOs often come from a store-and-forward world in which fractions of a second don’t matter that much, whereas in the world of physical devices?where functions can have safety implications?even small delays can have large consequences. While the technology could wait for backbone upgrades, Swantech’s Carpenter argues that this delay is not necessary, since adding local resources can make devices smart enough to tackle many network issues on their own. Computation lets them model and then adapt intelligently to network behavior; local storage lets them take on responsibility for issues such as reliability (when the network goes down, device storage kicks in).

Another simple name for the transformation of dumb devices into smart devices is automation. As more devices get smarter, their ability to repair themselves will only increase, and the number of times when a network breakdown will require human intervention should drop. When that intervention becomes necessary, however, it will likely require the technician to have more skills and training to solve the problem.

In theory that seems like an ideal environment for the elaboration of a globally outsourced support model, having hundreds of thousands of superexperts?each deeply educated in a few specialized support issues?monitoring the device networks of clients around the world and dealing with crises as they erupt. In other words, the migration to device networking might shrink the number of routine IT support issues (through smarter devices and more local management) while outsourcing the remaining, tougher problems.

It would seem like a gloomy prospect for conventional IT workers, except for one consideration: The superexperts are going to have to come from somewhere?and IT may prove an excellent training ground. n