The Internet of Things is on the cusp of making the leap “from huge hype to mass deployments,” according to Andy Rhodes, Vice President and General Manager IoT Commercial Solutions at Dell, the Texas-based IT group that generates more than US$61 billion in annual revenue and operates across 180 countries. “Today there are not as many projects out in the world as there is hype, articles, press,” he said in an interview with Hot Topics. “A lot of these projects are built in silos today. A company could have 10 IoT type projects, but they are all discrete.”
But the business case for embracing the IoT is becoming increasingly compelling – companies can use connectivity to cut costs, improve their products and services, and move into new markets. Company strategists are now exploring how they can build a single IT architecture for multiple IoT projects, while fixing some of the human resources and cultural issues that can hinder technology-driven transformation, according to Rhodes. “Our customers often tell us that the IoT is the easy part, it is bringing the business along…It’s the people side of this…its an area that a lot of customers only understand when they get half way through or towards the end of a project and it is a big stumbling block,” he said.
In particular, Rhodes believes “operations technology” people (such as factory or mine managers) and IT people need to work closely together and break out of the silos within their organizations. “There is a natural divide in companies between where IT people starts and stops and when operations people starts and stops,” he said. “Well throw that paradigm away. That is completely blurred now. IT needs to reach all the way to the thing, the sensor or whatever it is and the operations technology needs to reach all the way back into the data center. And the only way to do that without conflict is to start these projects together and work on them as one project team.”
Delivering data analytics, deep learning and ultimately blockchain
Having acquired storage specialist EMC for US$67 billion in 2016, Dell is well placed to provide the IT infrastructure that companies need to store, process and analyze all the data being generated by newly connected devices, machines and vehicles. “The opportunity for Dell is huge,” noted Rhodes. “We supply and help our customers build out the infrastructure to harvest that data and then go and analyze it, which is where the profit for many businesses is.”
Dell could also benefit from the growing adoption of deep learning, which uses real world data to train computers to become more intelligent. “Deep learning is all about correlating these data points together,” said Rhodes. “If you think about thousands of devices connected together, each of them acting independently on the data it receives, but then aggregating that data at the back end of the data centre and then doing deep learning on that data, so you can see how thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of things, perform in a certain environment is an absolute reality that a lot of our customers are implementing today.”
Rhodes also anticipates that blockchain technologies will ultimately play a major role in the IoT by providing a “continuous, non-disrupted record of transactions.” By distributing the transaction ledger across many different computers, blockchain systems could remove the need for a central intermediary to verify and record transactions between connected objects and computers.
Caring for high-value assets
Many IoT use cases cut across industries. Rhodes noted that most companies are particularly keen to monitor the condition and location of high-value assets. For example, The Weir Group, an engineering company based in Scotland, is using IoT technology solutions to anticipate when particular components in the mining equipment it supplies to customers are reaching the end of their lives. “They will know well in advance before it fails,” said Rhodes. “They can schedule the right person at the right time or they can tell the customer that they will get another three weeks of use of this or we can fix it now and the downtime is less.”
He points to the oil and gas sector as particularly advanced in adopting this kind of predictive maintenance. “If oil is at US$50 a barrel, that is probably a good time to go do your maintenance,” notes Rhodes. “If it is up at US$120 a barrel, you just want your machinery pumping out oil as fast as it can. Well, IoT technology solutions can help determine when you do your maintenance cycles based on the price of oil.”
Dell is also finding strong demand for IoT technology solutions in the intensely competitive manufacturing and agricultural sectors, in which even small efficiency gains can make the difference between a profit and a loss. Rhodes flagged the potential to use connected sensors to reduce the amount of food that spoils in the supply chain in developing countries, where vehicles can unexpectedly break down or goods can experience major swings in temperature. Dell has even helped one customer in India attach sensors to cows, enabling their movements across a field to be correlated with milk yields.
Tackling security – the ultimate inhibitor
As the IoT expands, companies now have to defend a wider front in the battle against cyber attacks. Rhodes’ advice is to “be paranoid, but not paralyzed”. He compares it to the shift from branch banking to online banking two decades ago. “The [banks] that got paralyzed, and not paranoid, were the ones who came in very, very late or were the ones that were not there when they realized that they had to make the transformation,” he pointed out.
For Dell, security is a starting point for any solution. “We treat it as the ultimate inhibitor and therefore the first place we go and help customers to look at,” Rhodes said. “As you have added new sensors, new elements in the environment. Do you understand how they operate? Do you understand how they can be hacked? Do you understand what data are they gathering?”
Dell itself works with specialist security companies that can ensure that all elements of IoT technology solutions are protected. “Companies that we work with, like ForgeRock and others, they really understand all of these different aspects, and we partner with them to make sure our customers architect them into their solution,” he explained.
Protecting privacy is also a major issue for companies, primarily because they need to maintain customer trust. “If you collect data on people, on things and processes, then you have the inherent responsibility to secure that and ensure it is not breached,” Rhodes stressed. As connectivity and computing permeate deeper into consumers’ lives, policymakers will have to figure out which data sets belong to which actors. Rhodes gave the following example: If a couple owns a smart bed that tracks their sleeping patterns, and they then get divorced, who owns the resulting data? “I think there is going to be some pretty interesting legislation on the consumer side,” he said.