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The IoT and the Needs of Business

Bolder use of the Internet of Things by customers is generally feeding into to the corporate level.


A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

In a recent column, Bob O’Donnell took a look at the rapid growth of the Internet of Things. The IoT is a large, variable collection, from heartbeat monitors on your wrist to a camera watching your garage. It can work with apps, send info to friends or websites, and control events in your house. It is important, but the discussion of IoT for consumers is only part of the story.

For corporations where the IoT effort has been going on longer, it is already making a major difference. Certain critical industries, like oil and gas production, electrical utilities, etc., have a critical need for tracking events and being warned of goings on at work sites. Sensitive detectors in the systems have been part of IoT for a long time. But the traditional method of communication and control has been SCADA, designed specifically for running large operations. The system worked by getting information into a central controller, and in many cases, security depended mainly on pure complexity.

IoT was a natural approach that is catching on. Like consumer IoT systems, items in the field are equipped with lots of abilities. The devices have a set of communications capabilities, and they are set up to exchange information with both mobile devices and other communications on the network.

In business systems, devices can send key messages directly to sites and provide better and simpler communications while also sending information along to headquarters for analytics. The Internet can provide both lower cost and improved communications better than the plain old telephone service lines did. And well-delivered techniques can be added to provide acceptable levels of security.

Of course, the users of IoT systems have very different needs. Retailing, for example, wants faster information from the stores, Panasonic’s Powershelf (pictured right) being an example of such a system. Printed product labels on shelves are starting to be replaced by electronic devices. Of course, they use an LED display to repeat the label information. But their communication capability is used to send reports of the purchases to warehouses so they can maintain stock, and to headquarters so they can get on-time information on sales in all the stores.

And, of course, electronically updated prices can be sent to both the electronic label and the point of sale. You could even use the information of IoT exchanges to change prices regularly in the course of a day. With IoT, retailers get tricks that once worked only on the Internet.

The development of IoT is changing the nature of how corporations use data. Databases have frequently been used to analyze corporate information, but in the traditional way of collection; that is, feeding in the data and getting back reports. But now the data is often a lot greater and flows a lot faster. One more has been to move from traditional databases to new ways of moving through methods such as Hadoop.

Another is a change that enterprise is learning from competitors. Oddly enough, modern Web systems designed by startup companies are now being copied by large corporations for their own IoT. Traditional old-fashioned monolithic computing setups are being replaced by microservice systems, in which only a single computer (more likely than not, a virtual machine) holds a single piece of software. Each of these computer “containers” talks to each other with standard language to share their capability. The next step is to get this company system onto a cloud, whether the company’s own private setup or a commercial cloud. Amazon Web Services is by far the leader, but the move of traditional companies is causing the old types such as IBM to push the business hard.

As has been the case in consumer computing, IoT is not the right approach for everything for companies. Many systems, such as the standard databases and the maintaining of taxes and payroll, are going to continue. But IoT is bringing a lot of the access to other sorts of information.

In many cases, bolder use of IoT by customers is generally feeding into to the corporate level. The same systems, from airlines to grocery stores, is a way to provide IoT to customers. Over time, a growing increase in information flows into the company. It is a lot of trouble for airlines to keep track of their flight, staff, pricing and other phenomena to keep the systems working — and IoT can bring dramatic change.

Steve Wildstrom is a veteran technology reporter, writer and analyst based in the Washington, D.C., area. He created and wrote Businessweek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving Businessweek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech, and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD. He also consults for major technology companies. Reach him @swildstrom.

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