The Internet of Things has served for several years now as an aspirational touch point for bright imaginings around our connected future. But the dial on IoT positioning shifted into hyperdrive this spring as several of the tier one IT vendors announced new platforms aimed at enabling the development of IoT solutions. HP, for example, launched an IoT platform for CSPs, while Microsoft announced its IoT suite for Azure and Windows 10 along with developer platform, adding their unique offerings to Cisco’s established play in this market space. But in this emerging “matter of grave importance,” how is it possible to distinguish style from substance? Weighing heft in IoT is a challenge for market observers: a solutions orientation with many moving sensor, data and network parts rather than a single technology, IoT encompasses many providers who are now looking to establish themselves in a fragmented environment that is just beginning to take market shape. But one way to estimate potential market traction is to consider ongoing investment and effort in building IoT strategy and solutions. On this score, IBM has a unique story to tell.
IBM traces its IoT heritage back to Smarter Planet, an initiative that aimed to take advantage of the ‘three Is’ – the fact that world systems and industries were becoming more instrumented, interconnected and intelligent – as the company helped business and government leaders build IT solutions to address the world’s most pressing problems. First introduced back in 2008 by then CEO Sam Palmisano during a speech to the Council of Foreign Relations, Smarter Planet was given more concrete form in 2011 with announcement of the Smarter Computing, an infrastructure framework that combined key elements which ultimately have morphed into IBM’s approach to IoT: cloud computing technologies, Big Data architectures and systems optimization. Under a number of industry focused banners, such as Smarter Cities, Smarter Transportation, Smarter Water and Smarter Buildings, IBM has worked over the years with countless customer organizations to refine its platform offerings. Through the Smarter Cities Challenge, for example, IBM worked with 100 global cities to develop best practice in the management of urban resources and to apply its Intelligent Operations offering, a platform designed to support city strategies for collecting, sharing, analyzing and acting on data.
In the IBM schema, data is king and the source not only of an organization’s historical performance analysis, but also the means to optimize current operations and predict future behaviour – of assets, human resources and/or physical environments. But over time, the advance of the ‘three Is’ (instrumentation, interconnectedness and intelligence) has served not only as the means to solve pressing world problems, but also to introduce management issues. First on the list is data – lots of it, and lots in different formats collected from different IoT devices. Estimates for the number of connected devices that will be in play generally vary by analyst, but they do have one thing in common – a tendency towards upward revision. The latest from Gartner puts the number at 4.9 billion this year and by 2020, 25 billion with each transmitting and generating data that, if properly managed and analyzed, could form the basis for improved decision making for both public and private sector organizations. To manage this data tsunami, in the form and volume generated by IoT, IBM has further evolved its Smart platform.
IoT represents a huge opportunity for end user organizations and market players alike, including IBM which estimates that “as much as 90 percent of all data generated by devices such as smartphones, tablets, connected vehicles and appliances is never analyzed or acted on.” To capture this potential, IBM has addressed specific IoT data management needs with what Mac Devine, VP and CTO, SDN & Innovation Services at IBM, described as “systems of discovery.” According to Devine, “the perfect storm” is here, defined as the combination of Big Data, real time information streams (as opposed to batch processing of data) and cloud infrastructure which can deliver the massive processing scale needed to manage data from sensors that are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. However, “not all data and analytics are created equally”: in IoT, Devine explained, some real time data feeds may require local analysis and in some cases a composite of all data stores and the business analysis of summary data on the back end in the cloud may be appropriate in order to deliver continuous, “composable services” that can accommodate various use cases. To support architectural flexibility, IBM can draw on long term experience and expertise in data architectures and management, and to help organizations integrate IoT data in cloud-based development of IoT applications, has created the Bluemix IoT Zone, a PaaS offering that enables developers to embed analytics to optimize and automate processes. To a support development of industry specific IoT solutions, IBM has also created an IoT Open Platform that relies on cloud to deliver vertically-based analytics software. In IoT solution development, the integration of data from disparate devices and its traffic from the edge to cloud centre represents an ongoing challenge. To grapple with this, IBM is hosting Flow DataStreams on the SoftLayer cloud, a solution aimed at connecting and managing all data as it traverses the network, Devine added.
Work with partners represents a third pillar in IBM’s IoT strategy, and in the creation of an IoT ecosystem the company has developed relationships with partners ranging from communications providers (AT&T), to microcontroller OEMs (ex. with ARM for an mbed Starter Kit that connects devices to the IoT Foundation in Bluemix) and semiconductor manufacturers (Semtech for low power WANs to support M2M communications). IBM has also developed relationships designed to deliver additional content streams: for example, the company has a long term relationship with ESRI for geospatial information, with Twitter, for the integration of social information into business decision-making, and its most recently announced partnership with The Weather Company, which will see the WSI migrate its weather data platform to the IBM cloud to support the integration of real-time weather insights with business data and other rich data from other IoT enabled systems to improve decision making and improve operational performance.
IBM’s IoT program has evolved out of traditional company strengths in open cloud, smarter infrastructure, and data architecture and analytics, supported by deep domain knowledge in specific verticals. But IBM is now looking to transition evolution to revolution by devoting significant new resources to the development of its IoT platform: at the end of March the company announced an investment of $3 billion over the next four years in an Internet of Things (IoT) business unit consisting of 2,000 consultants, researchers and developers, to expand its portfolio of cloud services, software and related intellectual property.
If the components of IoT – cloud, analytics and sensors – do not represent new technologies per say, as the newly appointed lead for IBM Analytics in Canada, Mark Harris, explained, the goal of the new unit is to bring these together in workable solutions: “many businesses haven’t yet maximized or capitalized on this notion of IoT, so how you bring all these capabilities together in one area called Internet of Things, how you drive business value from that idea, and make it more nimble is where the interest lies. This is the challenge, but also the opportunity.” On an industry level, Harris expects to see most of this interest in Canada from some key verticals: government, which can use data to better manage assets, improve service delivery and their relationships with constituents; large utilities that will need to manage the massive data needed to integrate different energy resources; retailers who need better information to respond more nimbly to the competitive landscape; telecommunications providers, who will need to develop IoT data traffic solutions; and the insurance sector which needs data to migrate risk. According to Harris, IBM has already engaged in IoT conversations with several of these, but the company is also looking forward to “thought provoking discussion with newer customers” that IoT can engender. “We are a data company and we’re smart at building computing power,” Harris explained. “But we’re also smart at looking at how we change the world, how we use data to look around corners, combining this with intuition and experience to create a better business or societal outcome. How do you look proactively, remove the guesswork and put information at our fingertips to make better decisions – that’s where it will all anchor as IoT explodes.” A mark of sincerity indeed.