Technical Solutions Architect
I work with people who build, manage, and maintain IT infrastructures for a living and I’m noticing that many of them are now being asked to create and then operate entirely new and very large networks of Internet of Things (IoT) devices.
This isn’t surprising. IoT networks are predicted to play an increasingly significant role as contributors of business-critical information. We should expect them only to grow both in importance and scale.
But this also is work many IT teams haven’t taken on before. In terms of installation and operation, IoT networks bring with them a set of unique challenges – and need to be planned for with those challenges in mind. So, I want to use this post to quickly highlight five key points that IT managers for whom this is new territory should be aware of when putting an IoT infrastructure strategy together.
1) It’s the same job – but different
The first thing to note is that setting up an IoT infrastructure involves assessments that will look familiar. As usual, you’ll want to assess any given solution in terms of availability, manageability, performance, recoverability, and security. But while these all remain important, you need to be prepared to weight them differently as you plan your IoT solution. As I’ll explain in more detail below, the kinds of performance you look for on these metrics won’t always match what you’ve aimed for in the past.
The other big difference is the speed at which you’ll be expected to move. Of course, every new wave of technology tends to ratchet business expectations up another notch. But so, strong is the IoT data value proposition that this time you should expect to be pressured to roll out much faster than you’d otherwise wish. That makes good preparation – despite the haste – more essential than ever.
2) New system, same old budget
My next point is dispiriting but important to acknowledge upfront. It’s certainly exciting to be tasked with ensuring that a business-critical and entirely new IoT system gets built and remains operational. But don’t expect to be offered much by way of new resources to do it, even though there’s plenty of extra legwork involved.
If companies are budgeting anything for their IoT build out, it’s most likely for the analysts to whom you will be delivering the data. One needs to assume that the job of installing thousands of sensors on a factory floor, or flatscreen TVs in offices across a campus, or kiosks in malls across the country, and then making sure each is secure, networked, operates effectively, and gets vulnerabilities patched in a timely manner, are tasks you will be expected to accomplish without extra help.
3) An entirely new scale
The volumes here are daunting, too. Where companies rarely have more laptops, say, than staff, they may now be looking to install tens and even hundreds of thousands of individual sensors. That makes it imperative that the installation, management, and monitoring of your new IoT system – even elements as simple as switching all your devices on for the first time – are tasks that you plan very carefully.
Beyond physically placing your IoT devices where they need to be, nothing you do can be either high touch or ad hoc. You simply won’t have the time or resources available.
4) Automation is everything
That brings me to point four, and back to point one as well. If availability, manageability, performance, recoverability, and security all remain important, when it comes to the IoT, manageability is your greatest concern, thanks to sheer scale and speed at which you will likely be asked to operate.
The only way to both scale up fast and keep everything running once it’s installed is to automate everything you possibly can. You need to have automated tasks for deploying your devices. You need to automate configuration. You need to automate any type of update. And you need a centralized, single pane of glass for monitoring.
That will to allow you to manage many more devices per person—in the thousands per employee—than you do now, and to install a thousand additional devices of any kind as easily you installed the first.
Most importantly, your overall IoT infrastructure must enable ongoing centralized control, so that performance problems and reliability issues are easily detected and, ideally, predicted before they become a problem. For a great article on how to achieve this, check out my colleague Andrea Siviero’s article, “Architecting an Internet-of-Things Solution” on the VMware Consulting Blog, where he outlines a three tier architecture that enables a fast and large scale IoT rollout without incurring a significant operational overhead.
This requirement also has clear implications for the devices and management systems you buy. You should be looking for consistency in the gateways that you are installing, because that will aid management. You’ll want to avoid buying devices that come with proprietary management systems, because that adds complexity to your management challenge. And your centralized management system will need some kind of standardization, so that even if you do have to buy devices from different manufacturers, at least your management system will be standard across all of your devices.
5) Security as a growing concern
Now to my last point. As virus, ransomware, and DoS attacks continue to impact networks of all kinds on a global scale, the need for IoT device security is both obvious and urgent – and yet it’s still too rarely achieved. Indeed, many such attacks are being made possible thanks precisely to the emergence of new but highly unsecure IoT networks.
Two types of security are particularly important for IoT devices. The first is the inherent security of the operating environments they run. IoT networked devices are as likely to be located in a café, kiosk, street, or open office as in a physically secure location. Again, the solution here is to automate. Your infrastructure design must let you readily and seamlessly push OS security patches and configuration adjustments out to these devices very quickly, at very short notice, and with low-to-no disruption.
The second issue has to do with network design. This needs to ensure that each device can only communicate in the way required for it to perform its function. So if a device like a smart TV, for example, is found to have other connectivity vulnerabilities, the network won’t allow bad actors to exploit them. This can be achieved through virtualized networking with micro-segmentation, private VLANs, or by creating an entirely new IoT network that is deliberately not internet-connected.
A huge upside
Clearly, an IoT network is not something that you want to be just patching together.
Indeed, the speed at which businesses are expecting to install IoT networks, the rate at which they are expected to grow, and the likelihood that virtually no new resources will be provided to install and keep them running, all make robust planning and preparation more essential than ever – even as you are under pressure to get moving fast.
But go in prepared, and the payoff for both IT and the business can be huge. What you create will very likely to be of enormous value. Just be ready, in the face of that success, to be asked to grow your IoT networks even more!
James Wirth works in the Professional Service Engineering Team designing services solutions for VMware customers. He is a proven cloud computing and virtualization industry veteran with over 10 years’ experience leading customers in Asia-Pacific and North America through their cloud computing journey. @jameswwirth