Monday, April 11, 2016

Connected Things 2016 recap

Screen Shot 2016 04 11 at 3 32 50 PM

The Internet-of-Things (IoT) and DevOps seem to be in a race to win the “most conferences/events” race. The IoT corner notched a pair last week with the Linux Foundation’s new OpenIoT Summit in San Diego and Connected Things 2016 put on by the MIT Enterprise Forum at the Media Lab in Cambridge.

I haven’t looked at the contents from the OpenIoT Summit but I do have thoughts from Connected Things that mostly reinforced everything else I see going on in the space.

Everyone’s talking.

This 500 person or so event sold out. This is clearly a hot topic and there’s a sense that it must be important. As we’ll see, the whats, the hows, the whys, and the the wherefores are a lot fuzzier. I’ve been through plenty of these new technology froths and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen quite such a mismatch between the hype and today’s more modest reality. No, hype’s not even quite right. It’s almost more of a utopian optimism about potential. Cue keynoter Rose, the author of Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things. This is about cityscapes and intelligent spaces and the automation of the physical world.

But what is it?

At a high level, I think the definition or definitions are pretty straightforward. There’s an element of interfacing the physical world to the digital one. And there’s a big role for data—probably coupled with machine learning, real-time control, and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. 

But how should we think about the market and where’s the value? Things get a lot murkier. 

(As I was writing this, an email literally popped into my account that read in part: "That brand new car that comes preloaded with a bunch of apps? Internet of Things. Those smart home devices that let you control the thermostat and play music with a few words? Internet of Things. That fitness tracker on your wrist that lets you tell your friends and family how your exercise is going? You get the point.” My point is that we have to refine our thinking to have useful discussions.)

At Connected Things, IDC’s Vernon Turner admitted that "It is a bit of a wrestling brawl to get a definition.” (For those who don’t know IDC, they’re an analyst firm that is in the business of defining and sizing markets so the fact that IDC is still trying to come to grips with various aspects of defining IoT is telling.) 

In general, the event organizers did make a gallant attempt to keep the sessions focused on specific problem classes and practical use cases but you were still left with the distinct feeling that the topic was coiled and ready to start zinging all over the place.

Data data everywhere. What do we do with it?

Data is central to IoT. Returning to Vernon from IDC again, he said that “By 2020, 44 zettabytes of content will be created (though not necessarily stored). We’ve never seen anything that scales at this magnitude before.” He also said that there will be a need for an "IoT gateway operating system where you aggregate the sensors in some meaningful way before you get the outcome." (I’d add at this point that Red Hat, like others, agrees that this sort of 3-tier architecture--edge, gateway, and cloud/datacenter—is going to generally be a good architecture for IoT.)

What’s less clear is how effectively we’ll make use of it given that we don’t use data very effectively today. McKinsey’s Michael Chui, on the same panel, noted that "less that 1% of the data collected is used for business purposes—but I expect an expansion of value over time in analytics.” I do expect more effective use of data over time. It’s probably encouraging that retail is leading manufacturing in IoT according to Vernon—given that retail was not a particular success story during the c. 1990s “data warehouse” version of better selling through analytics. 

Security matters—but how?

I’m tempted to just cut and paste the observations about security I made at the MassTLC IoT conference last year because, really, I’m not sure much has changed.

MIT’s Sanjay Sarma was downright pessimistic: “We have a disaster on our hands. We'll see a couple power plants go down. Security cannot be an afterthought. I'm terrified of this."

No one seemed to have great answers—at least at the edge device level. The footprints are small. Updates may not happen. (Though I had an interesting discussion with someone—forget who—at Linux Collaboration Summit last week who argued that they’re network devices; why shouldn’t they be updated?) Security may to be instantiated in the platform itself using the silicon as the secret. (John Walsh, President, Sypris Electronics). There was also some resignation that maybe walled gardens will have to be the answer. But what then about privacy? What then about portability?

There’s a utopian side to IoT. But there’s a dystopian side too.

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