internet-of-things-sml“Internet of Things” is a catchy buzz phrase that’s been floating around the IT world for a while. Like “Cloud” before it, it’s taking a while to gain attention, but its rise to the forefront is inevitable. Most of us think about it (if we think about it at all) as a concept that pertains to a futuristic “smart home” where washing machines and refrigerators are all online, awaiting homeowners’ remote commands – and vulnerable to being taken over by “house hackers,” thus wreaking havoc in the form of spoiled food and flooded laundry rooms.

However, a surge in the number of “things” connected to the Internet isn’t just a consumer issue. It’s going to impact businesses in a big way, as well. Let’s think about how an Internet of Things can change things in the business world – for better and for worse.

We’ll start with the obvious: businesses, like consumers, will benefit from being able to control components of the physical environment remotely. In an everything-connected world, you can turn lights on and off, turn heating or air conditioning up and down, lock or unlock doors electronically from afar, and otherwise maintain greater control over the buildings that house your business even when nobody is there. That’s not just a convenience; it can also result in big energy savings and reduced personnel costs, thus having a positive impact on the company’s bottom line.

One aspect of the Internet of Things is the connected car. Of course, company vehicles can take advantage of Internet connectivity just like consumer cars. Employers are already using GPS technology to keep track of where employees are during the work day and given all the data that’s collected by vehicles’ on board computers now, they will also be able to monitor information such as a log of the vehicle’s speed. While this can be seen as intrusive “big brother” behavior, companies would undoubtedly argue that they do have a vested interest in ensuring that company-owned vehicles are operated properly and that employees abide by the law when driving them.

With many companies hard at work on developing self-driving vehicles such as the Google driverless car, it’s possible that one day in the not-too-distant future, employees will be able to sit back and relax – or, via their Internet-connected vehicles, get work done – while on a solo drive to the office.

Another important usage for businesses is the ability to track the locations of much more than just vehicles. With cheap technology that embeds a chip capable of Internet connection into millions of objects, pets and perhaps even people (although that will create a lot of controversy), businesses will be able, for example, to keep up with the products they make, their equipment, supplies and other physical assets, and their employees – whether in a car or not.

While there’s vast potential for businesses to use the Internet of Things to increase productivity, better manage inventory and reduce wastage, the movement toward a world where every electronic gadget, appliance or device is connected to the ‘Net will also come with a down side. The most obvious issue is security. Hundreds, thousands or even millions of additional pieces of hardware connecting to our corporate networks represent a bonanza for hackers who are looking for a way in. If companies are foolish enough to connect everything to the same local network (and some will inevitably do it, either because nobody thought it through or by misconfiguring something here or there), an attacker might be able to penetrate your LAN through the coffeemaker in the break room or the boss’s BMW. A closely related concern is privacy. If everything and everyone is transmitting a signal and can be tracked, will it become socially unacceptable or even illegal to go “off the grid?”

Security and privacy aren’t the only worries, though. All those extra devices will use up network bandwidth, and bandwidth costs money. With metered services models being pushed by providers, putting everything on the Internet could get expensive. And even if cost is no object, you have to wonder whether many networks will get congested and slow, or even grind to a halt, under the overload. And what about the poor network admins who have to support all those things when they don’t connect as they’re supposed to?  Maybe all the on-premises IT jobs that are expected to be lost to the cloud can be rechanneled into keeping the plethora of client devices – which will now include practically everything in the building – up and running.

Those are issues affecting the local network, but there could also be more wide-reaching problems impacting the Internet itself. Will each of these “everythings” need its own public IP address? Obviously IPv4 won’t handle a huge new influx of devices, so that means companies will need to bite the bullet and finally make the transition to IPv6.  Gartner has predicted that there will be 26 billion “things” on the Internet by 2020, and that in fact, there will be more “things” connected to the Internet than devices we think of as computers (PCs, tablets and smart phones). As of July 29, 2013, Cisco’s “Connections Counter” estimated that there were approximately 10,300,000,000 things connected to the Internet. The number goes up by the second and Cisco’s prediction outdoes Gartner’s, forecasting that by 2020 the count will hit 50 billion.

It seems that, whether or not we like it, the Internet of Things is already happening and it’s growing fast. Yet there are no real, clearly defined and universally accepted standards governing this new and expanded concept of the global network. Will the Internet of Things be architected thoughtfully to avoid big technological and social problems down the road, or will it “just grow that way” as so many of today’s enterprise networks did? The years ahead will bring new opportunities and challenges for both businesses and individuals as we try to adapt to the rapid changes that are likely to come with it. We do, indeed, live in interesting times.