The Internet of Things is quickly becoming table stakes across many industries, but Pat Wilbur, CTO of Chicago-based Hologram.io, argues many IT leaders aren’t prepared for IoT’s added layers of complexity.
StrategicCIO360 spoke with Wilbur about how IoT is changing the work of IT departments, why it makes cybersecurity more complicated and what tools are most helpful in handling IoT—including what he calls “the Swiss Army knife” of IoT tools.
By 2028, the IoT market size is expected to be $1.8 trillion. What industries will see the greatest IoT growth?
While IoT growth will occur in nearly every industry, I expect the most development in agriculture, industrial, healthcare and micromobility within smart cities.
Smart farming, or agtech, uses IoT solutions for more efficient and productive agriculture. It’s an integrated approach that aims to increase agricultural production by making farms more connected and intelligent. The agriculture industry has developed IoT-based solutions that produce higher crop yields, reduce water usage, require fewer pesticides and fertilizer, lower food costs, minimize runoff and increase worker safety.
The industrial IoT backbone is built on low-powered sensors and internet-connected devices that collect and transmit data to inform decisions, which improve productivity. Additionally, IIoT—the Industrial Internet of Things—covers numerous technological advancements such as artificial intelligence, machine-to-machine communications and cloud technology. Experts agree that as these technologies improve, the demand for IIoT will rise. Forecasts indicate the global IIoT market will reach over $750 billion by next year.
Looking at healthcare, we turn to the Internet of Medical Things. That market is projected to grow to nearly $190 billion in 2028 and was likely spurred by the pandemic, which increased demand for new approaches to healthcare. We have seen that using IoMT devices can enhance the experience for patients, hospital staff and home health caregivers by enabling remote monitoring, reducing in-patient wait times and enhancing health-related data collection and analytics.
In cities around the globe, micromobility is growing in adoption, with the rise of e-scooters and bikes that are rented from docking stations or via smartphone apps. While micromobility vehicles are typically used for leisure, they also provide a commuting alternative—particularly as gas prices rise. Micromobility is expected to grow with this versatility as smart city design prioritizes greater sustainability and efficiency.
How will IoT growth impact IT professionals? What should they know?
Traditionally, IT professionals have worked on homogeneous networks, often using a workstation connected to a network where everything looks and acts similarly, and each element could be trusted—for the most part. When IoT is added to the mix, IT professionals can expect more complex, heterogeneous systems that increasingly connect devices of all shapes and sizes that work on different operating systems. In other words, each device will have different requirements and will introduce additional layers of security concerns.
All of this equates to an increased need for IT professionals to be more agile, to be able to build custom solutions, and to understand the security risks of each device connected to a network. In fact, IT professionals who can build and integrate custom solutions will be in high demand.
While progress is being made, security will remain a critical factor in IoT, which means IT professionals who understand and can balance a company’s technology needs and security threats—existing and emerging—will remain in demand.
What are some other important skills for IT leaders?
Many IoT devices use a SIM card to exchange data when the device is connected to the network. So, gaining an in-depth understanding of how the cards work and how they are integrated with the software could tie in with security as being among the most crucial skills.
Machine learning is an essential IoT skill that professionals must be able to tap into to collect, analyze, and extract data. Additionally, artificial intelligence is used to automate manual processes and free up time to look beyond the data.
With companies deploying IoT devices around the globe, knowing where they are is critical, which is why many applications employ GPS systems. Demonstrating an understanding of how they are used, how they are integrated and what information they can furnish boosts IT professionals’ resumes.
Cellular is used in smartphones, laptops, tablets and smart watches—and IoT, which uses cellular technology to communicate between devices and computers. One unique characteristic of cellular use in IoT devices is that it can be used to solve security issues by isolating the IoT device from other networks and systems.
In the early days of IoT, 2G cellular technology was used to transmit data; however, 2G, for the most part, has been phased out and 3G is next. These changes and moves toward 4G and 5G technologies are key issues impacting IoT use, and illustrate the need for IT professionals to evolve as the industry evolves.
When integrating IoT into existing systems, what are some of the issues that companies will need to think about?
IoT is a rapidly growing industry with infinite potential, but unique challenges are associated with adding connectivity. Some hurdles include achieving dependable connectivity, maintaining robust security, and ensuring compatibility between devices, systems and software.
Unfortunately, a lot of work needs to be done to improve IoT security, and there is no foreseeable end to emergent security threats. However, progress is being made, and many good people are working to combat security threats.
For IT professionals, understanding how to isolate and minimize issues is vital. It means flipping the typical thought pattern of protecting devices and networks from threats to assuming zero-day threats will inevitably exist and how to isolate them. For example, one way to minimize risk is for IoT devices to be placed on a cellular network and the company’s computers and other devices on different networks.
Many IoT devices require frequent updates, including security updates. Some require manual interaction to update software and firmware, but these days many wireless devices allow automatic over-the air updates. Even if a device is kept up-to-date, there can be holes in system security, especially if a manufacturer or software designer retires a product or goes out of business and stops creating updates.
Compatibility among devices, software and operating systems is a common issue in IoT. With an immense variety of manufacturers and providers, making devices and systems “talk” to each other can be a problem, so flexibility for how to integrate can be key.
As more and more IoT devices are connected, more data — including higher-bandwidth elements such as audio and video — will flow through those devices straining servers and networks that process and transmit that information.
For companies that invest in IoT applications, managing a fleet of devices can be one of the most challenging aspects. Even with a robust IoT platform, several team members who are well-versed in the technologies will be needed to oversee the deployment and deal with any anomalies and alerts when devices are compromised or need service.
Because it’s a relatively new field, IoT suffers from a professional skills gap. Many IT professionals are experts in some aspects of IoT. Still, few have the breadth of understanding and visionary skills to perceive all the possibilities — and vulnerabilities — in this evolving field.
What are some of the tools that IT professionals can learn to ensure they are prepared to integrate IoT?
The Swiss Army knife of IoT tools is Raspberry Pi—it allows IT professionals to find MacGyver-like answers to multiple issues. It’s a free operating system optimized for Raspberry Pi hardware, a popular IoT hardware tool. Raspberry Pi is a credit-card-sized computer that plugs into a TV or monitor and can be used with a mouse and keyboard. It acts much like a regular computer and is commonly used in IoT device prototyping.
Another favorite tool is Home Assistant. It’s not necessarily for commercial use, but designed to create a secure connected home. Still, it’s an excellent home lab that IT professionals can use to develop fun things at home and become familiar with IoT ideas.
Some additional development tools that would be good to know include:
- Microsoft Azure IoT—an open-source, cloud-based platform that helps bring local intelligence to distributed IoT.
- DeviceHive—a platform with a full-on IoT service that can walk the user from idea to implementation.
- DeviceHub—contains the drivers for programmable logic controller devices, which are industrial computers that have been ruggedized to deal with harsh environments like extreme temperatures and moisture.
- Flutter—a software development tool for building cross-platform apps, primarily for android and other cell phones; however, it’s still helpful if you want your IoT devices to interface with a phone system — for example, an app for micromobility vehicles or wearable health devices.
- ThingsBoard—an open-source IoT platform that supports HTTP, MQTT, CoAP, and other IoT protocols with speeds that rival cloud or on-premise distributions.
- Node-RED—a programming tool for wiring hardware together and works with APIs.