What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?

The internet of things (IoT) is a concept describing how physical objects may be connected to the internet to exchange data with other devices.

Long gone are the days when internet connectivity was relegated just to the desktop computer. Now, the internet travels with us, in the form of mobile digital devices. And with this mobilized connectivity, our concept of the internet itself is expanding. IoT incorporates billions of connected things — everyday objects embedded with sensors and other technology, and capable of sending and receiving data through the internet.

The IoT itself consists of a web of internet-enabled smart devices. Although each of these devices is different, they all share certain commonalities.

At their most basic, IoT objects gather data. Each object is essentially its own, self-contained computer with its own internet IP address. Data is automatically collected through built-in sensors, and can then be shared through the internet, transferring data among objects, systems, and people, without the need for human interaction. IoT objects range in sophistication from simple monitoring devices to extremely complex self-controlling machinery and AI-enhanced equipment.

When an IoT object interacts with the world, built-in sensors gather relevant data. For example, a modern wind turbine would be capable of collecting data on motor temperature, wind speed, and rotations.

Once the data has been captured, the object then sends it into the cloud. To do this, it may rely on a variety of methods, including direct ethernet connections, Wi-Fi, 4G or 5G cellular, Bluetooth, low-power wide-area networks, or satellites. Each of these options has its own strengths and limitations in terms of bandwidth, range, and availability; individual IoT devices will often be optimized for specific connectivity protocols.

When IoT data arrives in the cloud, it is then processed by server-based software. Once processed, the information is made available to the end user. In the example of the smart thermostat, the temperature data is compared against a predetermined range—if the temperature fits within that acceptable range, no action is needed, but if the temperature is outside of that range, then the thermostat may alert the user, or automatically activate the room’s heating or cooling systems to bring the temperature back within the acceptable range.

In terms of B2B applications, the data is made available to remote operations teams who then triage and investigate any issue that is detected by predetermined rules. These teams then decide whether to remotely address the issue, or to send a field service technician to resolve it on site. Alternatively, potential issues may be preemptively addressed; by monitoring equipment for warning signs, remote operations teams may elect to perform preventative maintenance to resolve problems early, rather than waiting for the equipment in question to fully fail.

In many cases, users can directly interface with the IoT platform through a connected application, via their mobile device or web browser. This allows them to set parameters and adjust, or to simply check in on how the device is performing. When a user makes changes to their equipment, the IoT device sends information to the cloud where it is processed, and then is delivered to the device itself.

As the Internet of Things grows, so do the number of use cases of traditionally non-digital objects benefiting from internet connectivity. In fact, this may include everything from smart bulbs that may be brightened or dimmed to correspond with daily sunlight availability, to entire smart factories capable of connecting previously disparate systems and equipment to help refine and optimize their operations.

Most of these real-world applications fall into three different categories:

IoT Devices – ServiceNow

Customer IoT

Consumer IoT consists of the physical IoT devices purchased, owned, and operated by individual consumers. These include many of the most well-known smart objects, such as:

  • Fitness trackers
  • Health sensors
  • Smart thermostats
  • Air-quality sensors
  • Smart door locks
  • Audio assistants
  • Wireless printers
  • VOIP phones
  • Smart lighting
  • Crash sensors
  • Home-energy monitoring and control
  • Smart appliances
  • Smart smoke detectors

Enterprise IoT

Although there may be some overlap with consumer IoT in terms of specific technologies, enterprise IoT focuses on collecting, sharing, and acting on data relevant to business and retail locations. This includes:

  • Smart wind-farm turbines
  • Connected vehicles
  • Smart energy grids
  • Soil/irrigation monitoring devices
  • Supply chain trackers
  • Inventory tracking tags
  • Patient-monitoring devices
  • Smart-farming systems

Industrial IoT

Industrial IoT (IoT) is also gaining prominence, allowing factories, manufacturers, and other industrial organizations to better understand and manage how devices interact. These systems include:

  • Industrial control systems
  • Production monitors
  • Predictive machine analytics devices
  • Worker wearables
  • Quality-control systems
  • Remote process automation and optimization
  • Temperature, flow, pressure, and humidity sensors
  • Condition-based maintenance alerts
  • Location beacons

It’s also worth noting that there is a lot of overlap between these categories, with many of the same kinds of IoT devices being employed across consumer, enterprise, and industrial applications.

There are several clear advantages for IoT in business, but perhaps the most important are those that center on assisting people and optimizing processes. Here, we highlight several key benefits:

Improved workforce productivity

Employees make or break a business. When they have the resources and support that they need, they can better perform their functions and promote business growth throughout their company. IoT helps employees and managers, by allowing for accurate analytics, simplified collaboration via portable devices, and more-effective monitoring, control, and management of a business’ entire workforce. IoT also allows for improved automation, with offices deploying a range of connected devices to help automate repetitive tasks and freeing up valuable employees to focus on more complex work. As a result, IoT-enhanced workforces can accomplish more in less time.

Process optimization

The first step in optimizing processes is collecting data on how and when they are being used. IoT devices provide that data automatically and constantly, allowing business process management teams to put processes under a microscope, evaluating strengths and weaknesses, and identifying inefficiencies or other potential issues. By providing a clear picture of existing business processes, IoT can help organizations refine and improve how they perform vital tasks.

Enhanced customer experience

Every customer is a unique individual, with unique needs and wants. Providing a positive customer experience depends on understanding and providing for those needs on a personal level. IoT can deliver reliable data related to customer purchasing habits and preferences. Applying behavior analysis through connected products, businesses can develop a more accurate picture of their audiences in and individual customers. Armed with this knowledge, they can then more accurately personalize each customer experience.

Remote monitoring and control

Organizations that employ IoT objects can collect large amounts of precise, up-to-date information relating to their own products and internal systems. For example, by monitoring data from a specific piece of machinery, a business can quickly identify a faulty component, and take action to repair or replace it before it fails and causes damage. Likewise, constant monitoring is a reliable solution to issues related to regulatory compliance. Devices, processes, or employees that fail to meet regulations may quickly be identified and correct action taken to bring them back in line.

Despite the benefits of IoT, it brings with it several potential security issues that businesses and consumers should be aware of.

Oversharing of sensitive data

As many IoT devices are designed to automatically collect and share data, they may end up exposing sensitive information. For example, a consumer IoT voice-assistant device capable of listening to conversations to determine interests and buying habits may also pick up on sensitive personal data; anything said within earshot of the device is essentially fair game to the object. Often, it is up to the IoT object manufacturers themselves to make sure that sensitive data is not being used inappropriately.

Ineffective protection from hackers

Many IoT devices are essentially computers that have been stripped down and simplified to perform only the most basic of tasks (such as collecting and sharing data). But they are still computers connected to the internet, and in streamlining their operating processes, many IoT companies may be making these devices more susceptible to outside threat actors.

And while a hacker might not be able to get through the firewalls and other security measures surrounding a company desktop computer or integrated mobile device, they may have much more luck entering the system through an unsecured piece of IoT industrial machinery. Doing so, they are not only able to attack vital IoT devices directly, but they can also gain access to a business’ network from the inside, leading to opportunities to eavesdrop on, disrupt, and steal important data.

Inability to address existing flaws

Unfortunately, a flaw exposed by IoT device manufacturers is that many devices include software flaws which cannot be patched. The IoT objects themselves include no updating capabilities, so even when flaws are identified, users have very few options in ensuring that these flaws are not being exploited. This puts some IoT devices permanently at risk.

Protecting IoT devices and the users and businesses that rely on them can be a difficult prospect. Adding security features takes up limited IoT resources and may impact an IoT object’s functionality. At the same time, there is little standardization between IoT vendors with regard to providing improved IoT protection.

That said, there are steps that users and businesses can take to help defend against some of the more-obvious IoT security threats. These include the following:

  • Stronger passwords
  • Improved authentication/authorization
  • Network segmentation
  • Enhanced encryption
  • Practical Cryptography

As more and more devices connect and operate online, the need for increased data capacity becomes even more prominent. Rather than handling this growing need using in-house servers and data storage, most IoT-relevant organizations are making the switch to data processing in the cloud. As such, cloud digital platforms are providing a natural resource for IoT and allowing businesses to integrate their data with relevant systems and processes, for a more efficient approach to IoT. ServiceNow is leading this charge.

Built on the award-winning Now Platform, Connected Operations from ServiceNow allows organizations to realize the full value of their IoT investments, allowing businesses to move beyond dashboards and instead employ automated issue resolution. Combining IoT data with advanced digital workflows, Connected Operations give businesses the power to automatically resolve issues before they become problems, and to bring teams together on a single, centralized platform.

As more and more devices connect and operate online, the need for increased data capacity becomes even more prominent. Rather than handling this growing need using in-house servers and data storage, most IoT-relevant organizations are making the switch to data processing in the cloud. As such, cloud digital platforms are providing a natural resource for IoT and allowing businesses to integrate their data with relevant systems and processes, for a more efficient approach to IoT. ServiceNow is leading this charge.

Built on the award-winning Now Platform, Connected Operations from ServiceNow allows organizations to realize the full value of their IoT investments, allowing businesses to move beyond dashboards and instead employ automated issue resolution. Combining IoT data with advanced digital workflows, Connected Operations give businesses the power to automatically resolve issues before they become problems, and to bring teams together on a single, centralized platform.

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