Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Harnessing IoT in the Enterprise

Internet of Things in the enterprise: The state of play

The Internet of Things can be a major driver of digital transformation, enabling new business models based on widespread devices and new data streams--if you can cope with the immature ecosystems.

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Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

For enterprises, the Internet of Things (IoT) currently represents something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand there are manifold opportunities to boost the efficiency of products and services, create new revenue streams and reduce operational costs by connecting all manner of devices ('things') to the internet and analysing the data they generate. On the other hand, this is still an immature market in which architectures, technologies, standards and vendors are all moving targets, making investment a risky business. In particular, security is a major worry when it comes to the IoT.

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According to Gartner's Nick Jones, the IoT will be a 'long tail' domain, with 'things' ranging from automotive subsystems and security cameras to Bluetooth beacons, smart garments, agricultural crop sensors and many more. In the near term, 'consumerization' will play an important role, and all sorts of smart devices will find their way into businesses, causing headaches for IT managers (say hello to 'Bring Your Own Thing', or BYOT).

Meanwhile, 'official' enterprise IoT deployments will concentrate on a relatively small number of use cases that can deliver demonstrable business value, says Jones. These include predictive maintenance (of HVAC systems, for example), energy saving in smart buildings, automatic replenishment (of anything from fuel tanks to beer kegs), vehicle fleet management and monitoring of assets and people.

Looking further ahead, the IoT clearly has the potential to be a major driver of digital transformation, enabling new business models based on widespread internet-connected devices and the resulting data streams. CIOs will need to keep an eye on such long-term prizes while extracting business value from today's immature -- and therefore somewhat confusing -- IoT ecosystems.

What does today's IoT market look like? In October last year, research/analyst firm Venture Scanner organised the 1,428 IoT startup companies it was tracking into 20 categories. These businesses were spread across 46 countries and had amassed a total of $25 billion in funding (as of January 2017, the numbers had risen to 1,544 IoT startups, 47 countries and $27bn).

In terms of the number of IoT companies there's a clear consumer bias, with Home, Healthcare, Lifestyle and Fitness all making the top five:

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Image: ZDNet / Data: Venture Scanner

However, when it comes to average funding levels, the clear leaders are Enterprise with around $78m per company and Utilities/Energy with around $69m per company:

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Image: Venture Scanner

To get a handle on how enterprises are currently approaching the IoT, analyst firm Machina Research conducted a TIA-commissioned survey in March/April 2016 covering 200 business decision makers in US companies with annual revenues of at least $10 million (average annual revenue was $425m). The main industry sectors represented were manufacturing, banking/finance, technology and healthcare.

The survey confirmed widespread interest in the IoT, with nearly half of companies (48%) already actively using IoT technologies, and a further 43 percent planning or expecting to deploy within two years (i.e. by March/April 2018):

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Image: Machine Research/TIA

Naturally, at this stage in the game, companies will have to expend considerable effort to integrate IoT solutions with legacy business systems. According to the Machina/TIA survey, just over three-quarters of companies (76%) will be exclusively or primarily focused on this through 2017, with 60 percent expecting to be so occupied through 2020.

Today's enterprise IoT landscape is a crowded and potentially confusing mix of specialist service providers, enterprise technology companies, cloud providers, telcos and systems integrators. All are in the business of helping companies to integrate IoT devices with traditional enterprise systems via communications channels (usually wireless), gateways and custom IoT software platforms, with analytics and security baked in at multiple levels.

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Image: Forrester Research

According to the 2016 Machina/TIA survey, enterprises currently tend to choose systems integrators as trusted IoT partners, followed by 'IoT/M2M end-to-end providers using standardized cellular technologies', business software platform companies and 'IoT/M2M end-to-end providers that use low-cost proprietary networks and technology'. Together, these four categories of IoT solution provider account for three-quarters of the survey population:

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Image: Machina Research/TIA

Whatever species of IoT solution provider you are, there's a multitude of technologies to master, some or all of which may be required in any given deployment. Gartner's Nick Jones, for example, highlights IoT device management, low-power short-range and wide-area networks, IoT processors, IoT operating systems, IoT gateways, event stream processing, IoT analytics and data science, IoT platforms and IoT security tools.

No wonder many enterprises are currently content to partner with systems integrators and other third parties. However, as today's fluid and highly fragmented IoT ecosystem consolidates over the next few years, more businesses should gain the experience and confidence to carry out their own in-house IoT implementations. In 2016, only two percent of the Machina/TIA respondents were attempting this.

Several IoT technology areas have multiple contenders to choose from. In low-power short-range wireless networks, for example, there is Zigbee (and other IEEE 802.15.4-based PANs), ZWave, Bluetooth (4 and 5), DASH7, WiFi, NFC and WiGig. Several options are available for low-power wide-area networking too, including proprietary technologies like Sigfox, incumbent 2G/3G cellular networks and NarrowBand IoT (NB-IoT) -- the latter being the likely long-term winner.

Elsewhere, Forrester recently evaluated 11 leading vendors in the IoT platform space (and there are many more out there), namely: AWS IoT; Ayla Agile IoT Platform; Cisco Jasper Control Center; Murano IoT Platform by Exosite; GE Predix; IBM Watson IoT Platform; Xively by LogMeIn IoT Connected Product Management Platform; Microsoft Azure IoT Suite; PTC Thingworx; SAP Hana Cloud Platform IoT Services; and Zebra Technologies' Zatar IoT Cloud Service. The analyst firm identified four 'leaders' based on the strengths of their current offerings and strategic outlook:

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Image: Forrester Wave: IoT Software Platforms, Q4 2016

IBM's Watson IoT Platform was praised for its advanced functionality (including augmented reality, cognitive capabilities, blockchain, edge analytics, analytics tooling and natural-language processing), strong open-source focus and robust global partner ecosystem.

Thingworx gots kudos for its broad wireless protocol support (short-range and WAN), strong digital twin functionality and wide range of prepackaged applications. PTC's 2015 Vuforia acquisition also gives it class-leading AR capabilities.

GE's Predix focuses on industrial IoT deployments, majoring on remote monitoring, advanced predictive and edge analytics and class-leading digital twin capability.

The fourth of Forrester's 'leaders', Microsoft's Azure IoT Suite, offers preconfigured solutions for predictive maintenance and remote monitoring, drawing on services such as IoT Hub, Notification Hubs, Machine Learning and Stream Analytics. Microsoft's IoT platform also garnered praise for its strong roadmap and global reach.

As we've noted, there are many use cases and business models in the IoT space, and so it's no surprise, at this stage in its evolution, to find multiple standards bodies, consortia and tech industry heavyweights involved in the quest for interoperability.

In February last year, for example, analyst firm IHS published an overview of 'the most influential associations and standards bodies' in the IoT space, and came up with profiles of no fewer than 55 entities, which it grouped into broad use-case categories. These were: Industrial Internet (6); Smart Home (18); Smart City (7); and Cellular/Telecommunications Connectivity (12), plus 12 further technical standards bodies.

These entities include proponents of various protocols and connectors, standards bodies such as the service-layer-focused OneM2M, and industry groups like the AllSeen Alliance (which recently merged with the Open Connectivity Foundation) and the Industrial Internet Consortium. Then there are individual industry heavyweights promoting their own IoT ecosystems -- Apple, Google, Samsung and Amazon in the consumer market, and Cisco, Intel, IBM and others in the business/industrial market.

As in many areas of the IoT, there are undoubtedly shakeouts and consolidations to come in the standards arena -- yet another thing for hard-pressed CIOs to keep an eye on.

Outlook

The IoT genie has escaped the bottle in the consumer space, particularly in the 'smart home' category, and the drawbacks of a rush to market are all too apparent in the security incidents that regularly hit the headlines. CIOs need to take note of these pitfalls, and deploy robust enterprise IoT solutions that not only deliver business value, but are also safe from the attentions of bad actors. That won't be easy in the short term, as they'll be dealing with technologies, standards and ecosystems that are undergoing rapid change. However, the long-term rewards for those who get it right should be well worth the trouble.

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