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IoT initiatives raise new complications for CIOs

As CIOs integrate IoT team projects, they must find a new balance between operational technology and IT -- a process that requires as much political savvy as tech expertise.

On paper, IoT initiatives are just another tech stack for CIOs to wrap their heads around. But when it comes to IoT projects, CIOs must focus on the relationship between operations technology and IT, said experts at the IoTBuild Conference in San Francisco last month.

One of the big challenges in developing that relationship lies in finding a balance point between IT and OT teams, said Kevin Miller, principal program manager for Azure IoT at Microsoft. He is often approached by engineers from either side who expect to develop an IoT solution without talking to their counterparts on the other side.

IoT products are typically focused on trying to make things perform better by adding a digital component, so their success requires a convergence of the physical world -- generally owned and controlled by OT teams -- with the digital side, run by IT teams.

"The clear majority of failed digital transformation attempts were because of failed communication between the two groups," Miller said.

When these IoT initiatives work, there is a virtuous cycle because enterprises have insights they did not have before. This comes down to asking questions like, "How can you make the assembly line run more quickly?" or, "How can we make a machine fail less?"

CIOs also need to rethink their risk management strategies when they take on IoT initiatives. The fallout from an email outage or the revenue lost if critical systems crash are serious business issues, but they pale beside a faulty IoT device that endangers human life.

"IT people have never had to think about killing someone," Miller said.

On the flipside, OT engineers must come to grips with some of the challenges associated with connecting to public networks. These engineers have been constrained to thinking about conductivity within factories or hospitals.

"Putting these things together is powerful but can result in some significant errors," Miller said.

We have to be careful we don't get too far into the weeds. It's about the ROI and the money.
Sean Horansales director, Sigfox

Money speaks louder than buzzwords

Because IoT initiatives require support from across the company, it's important that CIOs understand the business value that these initiatives will bring, not just the underlying technology, said Sean Horan, sales director at Sigfox, an IoT communications service.

"I don't know how many times I have gone into a presentation and someone asks, 'What is IoT?'" he said. "We have to be careful we don't get too far into the weeds. It's about the ROI and the money."

Even though CIOs might be familiar with the terminology and various components, it goes over the heads of other executives. A better approach is to start with the expected value IoT initiatives could deliver.

Starting with the business benefits of IoT helps build traction with executives, Miller said, because demonstrating enormous savings is what gets the CEO's attention. For example, Miller's IoT group was getting pushback from other executives when it first started implementing IoT services in Microsoft data centers.

But this initial work done by the IoT team identified a problem that ended up saving considerable money.

After the new IoT monitoring services were installed, Miller's IoT team noticed an upward spike of temperature on one of the servers was followed by a complete shutdown of that server. A poorly configured ventilation duct was blowing hot air onto the server, which was then shut down for safety reasons. The operations team was so impressed with the immediate savings that the IoT initiative was fast-tracked across all of Microsoft's data centers.

Going beyond the screen

It's also important to think through the implications of interacting with devices that lack a screen. It's not just that IoT initiatives introduce new UI, but that CIOs must create the infrastructure that makes it easy to control and gather information from devices, said Christopher Dow, CTO at August Home Inc., a connected lock company.

CIOs also must reconsider reasonable latency and reliability for new use cases. For example, a smart lock must compete against consumer expectations regarding opening a door with a regular key. That means that service-level agreements in an IoT environment are going to be different and likely more demanding than the SLAs IT engineers are used to. Dow helped engineers visualize this importance by stipulating the IoT-enabled door could accommodate the urgency of someone needing to get into a home to use the restroom.

It's also important to ensure a much higher reliability level than with traditional IT services -- 99.999% is not good enough. Getting a higher level of reliability requires providing redundancy across all the servers and services throughout the IoT back-end infrastructure.

Solid logging infrastructure can help, especially when it's time to identify if a problem is caused by poor Wi-Fi, an API or application code.

"The data we collect to monitor how it works and debug things is literally one-third of our AWS build, but without it we could not solve the problems we need to for our customers," Dow said.

This was last published in April 2018

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How can a company's IoT team convince executives about the business benefits of IoT projects?
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It's a double edged sword that IoT projects often touch many departments across a company. On one hand, it can make it hard to make a move because too many cooks need to be in the kitchen. On the other hand: if sales, marketing, support, and engineering could all benefit from an IoT solution, and they realize they could all benefit, and they approach the executive team with a unified plan, it may be hard for executives to say no.  
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Just ask your boss what his favorite IoT device is. You might have to remind him (or her) of Siri, OK Google, etc- but just start the conversation and explain that you would like to build out IoT capabilities for your own company's customers. I am trying to develop IoT devices for Home Depot customers and I feel like I am banging my head against a wall- but little by little they are becoming more common- everything from thermostats to microwave ovens are IoT devices now.
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