Things IT departments should know about the ‘Internet of things’

It’s coming to a network near you. What should IT pros do to prepare? Hint: the answer is related to a device that fits in the palm of your hand

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The Internet of things is a concept that sees all sorts of items (cars, fridges, bars of soap, manufacturing machinery) will be connected to the web. The idea is that people will be able to access updates about the items’ statuses online (low tire pressure, out of milk, en route from the warehouse, requiring repair and maintenance).

The Internet of things could revolutionize data access and information management. That being the case, what should companies do to prepare for this hyper-connected state of operation? Tech industry watchers say organizations should start by scrutinizing their smartphone strategies, because smartphones will be the interface of choice for the Internet of things.

“The smartphone is the catalyst,” notes Stacey Higginbotham in a post on GigaOM. “Essentially cell phone economics have invaded the Internet of things while open standards pushed by the web community at large are ensuring that the platforms are, if not exactly open, at least accessible via APIs or software. This means others can easily develop on a platform if it should succeed. And because everything can be controlled from a smartphone someone already carries in their pocket, the developers of these Internet-of-things devices don’t have to imbue their goods with much intelligence or fiddle around with expensive remotes.”

The Internet of things is poised to be an important influence on business operations, touching every aspect of an organization’s processes from quality control to customer care. To ensure employees can access and act on data from Internet-connected items, organizations must consider closely the capabilities and flexibility of the smartphones used in their lines of business. Do the handsets interoperate with the widest range of application platforms? Do the phones work with the latest software and networking standards?

Connectivity will be important as well. Users who rely on Internet-of-things information for their work won’t tolerate wireless dark spots in the organization’s LAN and in the wide area.

Mike Morgan, senior analyst, mobile devices at ABI Research, agrees that the smartphone may prove to be the most natural remote-control mechanism for the Internet of things. That said, he warns, not all smartphones are the same. Organizations will have to examine the devices’ security features. For instance, do the phones give companies a way to safeguard Internet-of-things data? If an employee loses his smartphone, how will the organization ensure operational information is secure?

Morgan says certain smartphone features will become all the more important. Organizations will need to be able to separate business data from personal data on the device, for example. This is especially true as more companies embrace BYOD (bring your own device) policies, where employees use their own smartphones for work. BYOD plus the Internet of things equals a potential information breach. What mechanisms does the company employ to ensure devices brought from home meet corporate security standards?

Some organizations might take a more restrictive route, Morgan says: rather than invest in smartphones and BYOD management systems, businesses could insist on giving employees Wi-Fi-only handsets that provide Internet-of-things information just within range of company HQ.

Businesses will have to balance security requirements and functionality, according to their own priorities, of course. Regardless, once settled on the right device, companies can arm employees with detailed operational information, giving workers access to insights that could drive business growth.

“This is where the smartphone could be useful,” Morgan says—although he also reiterates the need for research. Businesses could inadvertently open security holes in their Internet-of-things systems if they don’t think carefully about their smartphones.

Before you tackle the Internet of things, watch our special video series on ‘Emerging IT and Network Vulnerabilities — a better approach to managing risk.

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