The Internet of Things may be a new idea, but machines talking to other machines is not.
The way connected devices are evolving in industry, where they've been used for years, says a lot about why IoT has the potential to be something very big. But within enterprises, that evolution can also present some challenges.
It's a common but sometimes overlooked part of the shiny new world of IoT. Most opportunities to deploy enterprise IoT are in so-called brownfield environments, organizations where some form of connected device is already in place. Only 2 percent of those installed systems have been upgraded to IoT so far, Cisco Systems estimates.
Manufacturers, utilities, oil companies and other enterprises, typically ones with many widely dispersed physical assets, have used connected devices to monitor their operations and remotely control infrastructure for 20 years or more.
"Anything with a lot of machines has had what I'll just generically call 'connected machines' for a long time," Gartner analyst Hung LeHong said.
Factory motors have thermometers that continually report readings to management software. Telemetry systems track vehicle location and performance. SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems have been used for years in oil refineries, power distribution networks, water treatment plants and other large facilities and networks. All can make enterprises more efficient and prevent losses and unexpected failures, which can be both expensive and dangerous.
Those earlier technologies, sometimes called M2M (machine-to-machine), are typically linked only to local or private networks. About 80 percent of the connected machines in place today aren't on the Internet, according to Ido Sarig, vice president and general manager of IoT Solutions at Wind River, Intel's embedded software subsidiary.
M2M systems typically are reliable, resilient, and designed to keep working for many years. But most have been purpose-built for one job in one setting, relying on specific hardware, software and networks. This vertical integration can lock customers into one vendor that, in turn, is limited to developing and producing products for a relatively small market, said Bill Bien, a partner at Waterstone Management Group, a consulting firm that has advised many enterprises on connected device strategies.
"Now, with the Internet of Things, you're disrupting that hard relationship," he said.
IoT is built around IP (Internet Protocol) and horizontal layers of hardware, software and connectivity where technologies from many different vendors can come into play. That opens up new possibilities even as it drives costs down.
Smaller and cheaper hardware, made possible by advances in chip design, is helping to drive the change. Cost often dictates use, and in enterprise M2M, high hardware costs have meant selective deployments.
For example, an automaker that Waterstone advised could only afford to put sensors in the most critical and expensive parts in a factory, such as boilers, motors and pumps. It wired up those systems to detect impending breakdowns because such a failure would be most disruptive to the plant, said Hubert Selvanathan, a principal at Waterstone.
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