The infrastructure of things

Are networks prepared for the era where tens of billions of connected devices dominate the enterprise?

The possibilities that the Internet of Things creates for a business will require a drastic rethink of operating models and IT infrastructure. A factory, for instance, will have the potential to run several times faster with connected sensors. These sensors collect and analyse data to improve the efficiency of the company. But what use are these ambitions, if network infrastructures are simply too immature to react to the findings, preventing the delivery of real-time data that could affect business outcomes?network world image

Cisco estimates that a whopping 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2020 – a bold prediction, soaring above the mid-range estimates of Gartner at 20.8 billion, and BI Intelligence at 34 billion. The exact figure remains to be seen, but the sheer variety and volume of devices entering the enterprise are sure to be a major disruptive influence.

So how does the idea that anything could be connected encourage or induce panic among enterprises? Opening up and adjusting IT infrastructure to allow for these benefits to fall into place is a necessary plan of action for companies who are keen to leverage the benefits of machine to machine communication.

The IoT, however – with all of its potential to effectively collect and analyse data to improve customer satisfaction, increase revenue, cut operational expenditures and improve productivity – requires businesses to perform some behind-the-scenes revamping if they are to appreciate the full extent of its benefits.

Narender Vasandani, technical manager, Siemon, believes that companies need to firstly optimise a series of physical issues within their data centres if they are to support IoT.

“As organisations strive to capitalise on the IoT revolution and effectively manage Big Data, many will be looking to cloud and colocation data centres to handle much of the data,” he says.

“To ensure low latency, high bandwidth connections, data centre managers need to properly support the greater amount of active equipment that comes with IoT. Data centres need to therefore be designed to optimise space, power and cooling. This can include everything from high-density copper and fibre patch panels, to cabinet designs that allow equipment in two cabinets to share power distribution and connectivity in the zero-u space between bayed cabinets and aisle containment systems that optimise cooling and enable increased capacity.”

Handling the high volume of traffic that is expected from IoT processes is one of the main concerns for businesses. Last year, IDC predicted that by 2017, 90% of enterprise systems management would have rapidly adopted new business models to accommodate this.

Sunil Paul, co-founder and chief operating officer, Finesse Global, believes software-defined networking (SDN) – which simplifies IT network configuration by decoupling the control from the physical network – is the answer.

“As sensors and devices start transmitting huge amounts of data, one needs to plan for an agile network, as the output needs to function based on the input. For example, traffic has to be automatically diverted based on the congestion, an irrigation system will function based on the weather, and the manufacturing equipment will listen to the various sensors providing information. SDN is a valid solution,” he says.

Vasandani agrees that SDN is one method of maximising the performance of IoT devices.

“SDN that allows for managing switches and controlling data traffic in the data centre from a centralised location offers greater ability to respond to changes driven by data-intensive applications,” he says. “The use of standards-based structured cabling in the data centre offers interoperability, allows for easy implementation of SDN without the need to reconfigure the entire cabling infrastructure.”

According to Fady Younes, acting managing director, Cisco UAE, “SDN simplifies and accelerates the deployment of applications, reduces IT costs and operational errors, and helps make businesses more agile.” He goes on to say: “Thanks to network abstraction and automation that reduce network operations workloads, SDN enables companies to grow their network to meet demands, and to scale back if and when necessary. IT departments can apply a change once, and it is then distributed across all networks, scaling delivery, and driving new business models and growth.”

However, attempting to implement automation via the IoT could be disastrous if infrastructures are unprepared, especially when it comes to security. Depending on the nature of the business, enterprises need to ensure that their network complies with their industry-standard regulations.

“When it comes to IoT in general, there is some concern regarding lack of consumer privacy and the concern of secure information getting into the wrong hands,” says Vasandani. “Not only are advanced encryption and firewall technologies imperative for networks, but data centre managers also need to ensure physical security. While locking cabinets and deploying surveillance cameras and access controls are common security measures within a data centre, security threats from within also require the ability to detect unauthorised connections in the network.”

He goes on to add how AIM systems may help solve this issue. “Automated infrastructure management (AIM) systems provide real-time monitoring of a network’s physical connections and IT device status, with the ability to send alerts when unauthorised changes occur. AIM systems also help to maintain an audit log of all network events, which can help simplify compliance with regulatory mandates.”

In order for there to be a successful transformation within a business to enable IoT devices to run smoothly, various departments within the company need to combine forces if it is to be a success. Younes believes that organisations which are agile enough to innovate rapidly and unbridle their capacity to create cost value, experience value, or platform value for their customers will be the winners. He adds: “The real question for CIOs who are considering the need for change is how to make the required transformation. They need to work closely with the business leadership teams to show them the opportunities and challenges that come from digital transformation.”

A pressing consideration for organisations implementing a reformed infrastructure for IoT processes, is where the huge quantities of data will be stored once it has been collected from the devices. Businesses use IoT to make better decisions and improve customer satisfaction, and Younes believes that those that opt to store this data in the cloud must have a smart underlying network in order for it to be able to cope with the demands of Big Data.

“Organisations that have embraced cloud or virtualisation in their data centre environment or have started the journey down that path are the ones that benefit most from SDN, as they give customers the promise of achieving in their network what virtualisation has given them in the data centre,” he says. “The increased emphasis on cloud computing is placing new demands on the network. For cloud services to be seamless, the underlying network must be intelligent, carrier-class and virtualised.”

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