If it seems like you’ve been hearing a lot about the Internet of Things lately, that’s because it’s, well, a Thing.

“Just as the ordinary internet connects people over fixed or mobile, telecoms networks including satellite, GSM and WiFi, the internet of things connects devices to one another thanks to machine-to-machine ‘modules’ that have a sensor and communications electronics,” writes the Financial Times. “The sensors can detect things such as temperature, pressure or movement and a single module can perform multiple functions, from monitoring throttle notch settings on freight trains for fuel efficiency, to slowing or stopping a train if there is an obstruction on the line.”

Numerous vendors and analysts, including McKinsey and Gartner, are touting a bright future for the Internet of Things. “By 2020, 50bn [devices] will be connected to the Internet in the developed world, according to Netherlands-based NXP (…) Within five years, most homes will have 200 devices linked to the Internet from light bulbs to washing machines, NXP says.”

By 2025, McKinsey estimates the potential economic impact of the Internet of Things as $5 to $7 trillion – per year. And in its report, The Internet of Things is Coming, published in September 2011, Gartner recommended that companies develop an outline strategy for the Internet of Things. This plan includes working with the enterprise executive team to build an understanding and an appetite for action. It also recommends companies launch at least three pilot projects or services to explore and demonstrate these ideas in the context of their enterprise.

The whole point of the Internet of Things is that all sorts of devices — not just computers, but even buildings  — will have the ability to collect data about themselves, which can then be examined. Which light bulbs burn out first? How can you reduce HVAC costs? What parts of the car are going to need maintenance soon? Companies such as GE are adding sensors to many of their products, which enables both the company and the user to determine how these devices are being used — potentially saving millions of dollars per year through the collection and analysis of data.

Think of it as Big Data writ large.

But when we’re talking about Big Data, we’re talking about really big data, and that’s part of the reason you need to be aware of how your company plans to implement the Internet of Things . Think you’re chewing up storage fast now? Just wait. As just one example, it’s estimated that a single self-driving automobile will generate a gigabyte of data per second. What happens if part of your job is to maintain data on your company’s fleet of self-driving delivery trucks? Where are you going to put all that data?

Storage requirements for the Internet of Things is just one aspect that its early adopters are hand-wavey about. In a world where we already have conflicts between devices sharing data, how are we going to reduce interference when sitting in a room where all the things are constantly emitting data? How much bandwidth is this going to take up? How much is that much bandwidth going to cost?

Plus, if you’ve ever had trouble getting a printer and a computer to talk with each other — and who hasn’t — you have to wonder how hundreds or thousands of different devices are going to figure out how to communicate, even if the industry does define standards for communication between two devices. In the same way that you can follow your mom’s recipe exactly but your food just doesn’t taste the same as hers, two vendors can each comply with the standard perfectly and yet their devices are not able to communicate with each other — which we discovered in the early days of the Internet and TCP/IP, and which the intelligent medical device industry is now learning.

Similarly, consider how much time and effort you spend now managing your corporate network. How will you manage it when it contains millions of these sensors? How will you track down problems? Maybe the sensors will each have to have sensors.

Moreover, adding a computer-based control to a device can increase the security risk, by making it more hackable. Do you want burglars who can automatically blow out light bulbs or security cameras just before they come through? What about terrorists remotely shutting off building infrastructure, the way the evil aliens in Star Trek would shut off life support?

There are some wonderful opportunities for you in the Internet of Things, both as a consumer and as a provider. However, look at the opportunities carefully, and make sure you’re not biting off more “things” than you can chew.


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