In this guest post, Robert Price, Chief Technology Officer at Cisco’s UK Partner Organisation, describes how the IoT and digitisation is affecting your infrastructure.
At Cisco, digitisation forms the backbone of our strategy. Everything that Cisco does, today, is based around digitisation and digital. But what does digitisation actually mean? And with research suggesting 60% of digitisation projects fail due to inadequate infrastructure, what should you do to make it work for you?
Firstly, digitisation is largely connected to the Internet of Things (IoT). Cisco estimates say that by 2020 there will be something like 50 billion things connected to the internet – which is at least four times as many as today – with the potential for volumes to accelerate massively from there onwards.
If the IoT is about connecting all those things up, then digitisation deals with the consequences of that. The single biggest effect of connecting all those billions of things together is that you generate simply mind-boggling amounts of data.
The challenge then becomes, firstly, how you capture that data effectively, but then, more importantly, how do you go about analysing it? And what conclusions can be drawn that drive useful business outcomes?
First, let’s look at the implications for how networks are architected. Today networks are designed to support thousands or tens of thousands of devices – not millions. So we will need to rethink how we design our networks to handle this huge increase.
Cisco has an initiative called Digital Ready (DR), and within that we’ve defined an architectural model called ‘The Digital Network Architecture’ or DNA. This seeks to define the attributes that Cisco believes will be important if you’re going to have a digital ready network.
Then, handling data also necessitates a rethink. At the moment, data generated by a user or sensor on a network will conventionally be sent back to some form of central location where it will be analysed and stored. But when you get into this IoT world, and this digitisation world, there is so much data that it becomes impractical to transport it back to a central location. The networks may struggle to deal with the sheer volume of data, and storage becomes a huge issue as well.
Local data analysis
To give an example, there’s currently a global project to build a massive radio telescope array, called the Square Kilometre Array. When it’s finished in 2020, this is expected to generate 14 Exabytes of data, every single day. That feels like an insurmountable problem, but in fact only 1 Petabyte of that data is expected to be useful, which is huge but manageable. So you need to analyse the data and determine which to keep and which to discard, somewhere near the data’s point of origin.
Correspondingly, Cisco is starting to encourage organisations to embed more functionality and capability into the infrastructure itself. This enables the data to be analysed, and only the useful parts transmitted across the network and stored.
In a more down to earth scenario, consider a manufacturing line. By connecting the various machines and processes, you can drive efficiencies, and keep lost production due to unplanned downtime to a minimum.
For instance, there might be a machine on a car production line that’s pressing the bonnets. If you’ve got a sensor on it, you might spot when it slows down a little or goes out of tolerance, which indicates a potential failure before it becomes critical – so there’s no downtime, saving you potentially thousands of pounds per minute of outage.
But you don’t need to transmit and store all the data from this machine’s sensor, because almost all the time it’s saying everything is OK. Beyond simply logging the status occasionally, it’s only relevant to move data across the network when there’s a problem.
The technologies behind digitisation
Out-of-date infrastructure can bring down any digitisation project. If you’re suddenly faced with connecting hundreds of thousands of devices, your network may well not have the required capacity. But it’s not just about more of the same – digitisation will often need an updated infrastructure with new capabilities.
Going back to Cisco’s definition of a digital network architecture (DNA), this raises a few aspects. First is virtualisation, and specifically a technology called NFV, or Network Function Virtualisation, towards which we’re seeing a big trend. The basic premise is to take network functions such as routing, firewalling or intrusion prevention, and instead of providing them as a hardware device you provide them as software that runs on a generic server.
Secondly, software-defined networking (SDN) gives companies the automation and flexibility they need. For example, policy management could let you simply click on an application, click on the Quality of Service that you want it to have, and push that change out to hundreds of thousands of networking devices.
We also have another technology called ‘network as a sensor’, which uses capabilities that are built into a lot of Cisco products to analyse network behaviour from a security point of view. This embedded capability looks for anomalous activities, such as unexpectedly sending data outside of your organisation over a VPN, and alerts an admin when needed.
Digitalisation drives business change
It's not just about IoT, of course. Everybody should have a digital agenda for their business. That may be a customer experience agenda, it might be workforce optimisation, it might be mobile, or it might be a workplace transformation agenda.
As more and more devices get connected, this can change the nature of a company’s business. For example, automotive companies in the past just wanted you to buy a new car. But now, as cars get more connected in the IoT world, the manufacturer may well be downloading regular updates to the vehicle. Suddenly, they’ve transformed into a services company, with the opportunity to create revenue, but also a need to manage connectivity.
On the other hand, companies now need to be even more vigilant about IT security. We’ve already seen examples of breaches where hackers used devices connected to the IP network to get into a company’s system. In one instance, an insecure air-conditioning system enabled criminals to access an e-commerce system and steal customer records. This isn’t helped by the trend to ‘shadow IT’, where devices are added to a network by staff outside the IT department – even something as simple as a coffee machine or networked light switch.
Digitisation is happening
Like it or not, digitisation and the IoT will very soon start impacting on you. Whether or not you are formally starting a digitisation programme, you need to start planning and adapting your infrastructure now.