Challenges to Internet of Things (IoT)

Internet of things is the most promising technology at the moment. Each day I learn a new use case but today, I came across one of the best

IoT Gilbert (2)

Almost all the technology companies are working on IoT and are betting top dollars behind it. It is one of the most significant trends of this generation. The most apt saying for IoT is “Devil is in Details”. As we start to move beyond the hype and big forecasts, we start to face numerous challenges while deciding about implementing IoT. Here are five that stand out in particular.

Data Privacy & Security

Challenge: Data and analysis is the backbone of any IoT implementation. The Internet of Things brings an explosion of data, along with it security and privacy concerns as well. There is a big fear that the data might be misused for advertising or identify and individual or worse may fall into wrong hands. In a connected future, criminals get a lot more opportunities to attack companies and steal (digital) properties, commit fraud or blackmail organisations. Imagine if the terrorists are able to hack into the smart energy grid and bring everything to a halt by disrupting the power supply. IoT communications capabilities can become a two-way street, giving hackers a way into the organization while circumventing normal security protocols. Compounding the challenge, IoT security is notoriously weak, and there is no consensus for how to implement security at the device level.  At the Black Hat security conference last year, security research students from University of Central Florida demonstrated how they could hack into Google’s Nest thermostat  within 15 seconds, leading many commentators and experts to question what is being sacrificed in the name of convenience. The multiplicity of devices (things) leads to many more access points for the hackers to exploit (Gartner has predicted 26 billion units by 2020). The vulnerability of things is ever increasing but due to low memory on most of the devices, the network itself needs to be secured.

Potential Solution: The companies need to collaborate on data privacy issues instead of competition to have a greater level of trust and protection, e.g. AMD and ARM are collaborating on ARM TrustZone technology. A number of start-ups are coming up especially in consumer IoT and hence it is important that there is significant collaboration on data handling and the burden of data security is not entirely on start-ups. The IoT vendors need to be transparent in how they are handling sensitive customer data. The data also needs to be categorized as per the sensitiveness of the data and appropriate security measures need to be taken. The policy makers and the industry associations need to be stringent in penalizing any data breach. The policy makers should make strict rules  while ensuring that the growth of IoT is not restrained.

Lack of Standards

Challenge: The IoT ecosystem is very fragmented with no dominant ecosystem, providers or technical model to set the industry standards. IoT, particularly in the consumer space has seen haphazard development due to proliferation of niche players.The space is getting crowed but the development is very silo’ed which means that parallel systems are emerging which may not necessarily talk to each other. Internet and telecom industries quickly developed standards that led to explosive growth in those two industries without too much of friction but the same cannot be said about IoT industry. Lack of standards complicates product development and industry growth. An example is the incompatible connectivity standards on devices like the Bluetooth, LTE Cat 0, ZigBee. Now if I am product developer, I would not be sure which standard to use from future compatibility perspective and would delay my decision. There are issues with the format of data getting generated as well. It is easy to have a smart building where the lifts, lighting and security are all integrated but imagine trying to integrate all different networks in a smart city.

Potential Solution: The industry associations need to come together and work on standards. Currently, there are at least four parallel standards (Thread, AllJoyn, Open Interconnect Consortium, Industrial Internet Consortium)  that are being developed for IoT. This approach will not work and the only option is that the standards need to converge. Focus should be on interoperability so that the early investments are secure. In case of mobile operators, individual operators followed their own unique protocols until the GSMA standardized multiple consortium that led to widespread agreements on data center infrastructure, cabling, fiber‑optic color‑coding and other protocols. There is a need for an industry association (similar to GSMA for mobile operators) to define the standards. A few standards are there primarily in the area of M2M but it is barely scratching the surface.

Network Infrastructure

Challenge: Cellular networks cover a lot more ground than they did even a few years ago, and 4G networks are expanding, but once you move beyond big metropolitan areas, you still can’t count on cellular. Now if there is huge amount of data that needs to be sent to a central location for analysis, the challenge is with the connectivity. This would mean that the devices need to have on-device computing. However, this makes the implementation harder and expensive apart from better battery performance requirements. Even integrating different “things” is a challenge as as they need to be connected to get the complete data picture.

Potential Solution: Ubiquitous network (not to be confused with ubiquitous networking) is a must and for that we cannot rely only on the cellular network. We need to work on a combination of cellular, WiFi, LAN, WLAN across licensed and unlicensed spectrum bands to be able to fulfill the dream of ubiquitous network.

Lack of Skilled Professionals

Challenge: The unpreparedness and insufficient skills among IT professionals is hindering the adoption of Internet of Things (IoT).  Data is one of the cornerstones of successful IoT implementation but lack of data scientist has emerged as a key challenge. A McKinsey report estimated that the United States faces a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep data analytics skills, and 1.5 million managers and analysts to make business decisions based on their findings. The need for continuous skill upgrade is very real. Many companies are training people internally and a few new courses have started in universities across the world to fill the skill gap. However, the unprecedented growth of IoT would continue to outpace the growth in skill development

Potential Solution: The industry associations and universities can play a significant role in quickly bridging the skill gap. The IoT industry is new and hence it would always be hard to find trained manpower and hence it the companies would need to spend significant money on training. A number of universities have started courses on data scientists and the industry should support the universities in all possible ways to scale quickly.

Uncertain Return on Investment (ROI)

Challenge: The IoT implementations normally run in millions of dollars along with being very complex. Many companies are hence wary of treading this path as they are unsure of the returns or benefits of Internet of Things. In the absence of standards and few reference implementations, companies are willing to wait rather than piloting a new technology.

Potential Solution: The benefits from IoT are multi-dimensional which is why most of the companies get attracted to it but since they are not able to quantify the benefits, they end up postponing the implementation of IoT. It is important for companies trying to build thought leadership to start educating the customers on the potential benefits. Bring out the real life case studies, benefits of implementation, etc. It is also important to define the right metrics, collect regular data and then convert the data into value. The pre-sales proposals should try to define the metrics and make most of the benefits quantifiable. In many a cases, the product team initiates the IoT project within their companies but they do not know how to quantify the benefit. The serious players in IoT space should be willing to spend time (sometimes even pro-bono) to educate the product managers on quantifying the IoT benefits. We need a few big celebrated IoT deployments to open the floodgates.

Summary: Internet of Things is an exciting area and I am certain that it would live beyond the hype. The industry faces a number of challenges and I have attempted to list some of the potential solutions. The solutions may look simplistic but the biggest challenges sometimes have the most simple solution – talking. The ecosystem players need to come together and talk. Once they start to socialize, the challenges would automatically start to disappear.
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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not reflect the views of my employer.

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