As 2019 comes to a close, many organisations are looking back on the past decade and ahead at their goals for the 2020s, writes By Alex Guillen, Technology Strategist at Insight.
One clear goal for many businesses is to become more agile – identifying and reacting to trends and opportunities in close to real time, using the ever-growing amounts of information and insight that digital technology provides to ensure they are making the right decisions. The drive to become a real-time business has clear momentum, with Gartner forecasting that by 2022 more than half of new business systems will use real-time data to support continuous intelligence that improves decision-making.
The growth of the Internet of Things is critical to this; providing the endpoints that can generate real-time data for a real-time business. The footprint of IoT devices is steadily expanding – again, Gartner predicts there will be 5.8 billion enterprise and automotive IoT endpoints in use in 2020, and that investment will pass the $1 trillion mark by 2022.
Making a Real-Time Difference
IoT has greatly expanded the opportunities that are open to these real-time businesses – from strategic decisions based on market data, to immediate operational decisions. For instance, retailers using sensors to track inventory both on shop shelves and in their warehouses don’t only make their supply chain more efficient by ordering what they need exactly when it’s needed. Retail time inventory management also allows retailers to make better decisions, save time, improve the customer experience and ultimately increase store sales. For instance, shop staff can use live information to guide customers to the exact product they want – including identifying which local stores have the right item, reserving it for the customer, and giving directions.
Similarly, manufacturers can use sensors on factory machinery to monitor performance – spotting potential maintenance issues and either servicing or replacing the machinery before it causes production to grind to a standstill. In healthcare, giving patients wearable devices allows medical professionals to track a range of vital statistics – from heart rate to body temperature – and identify and act on potential danger signs as soon as they appear, preventing a potential problem from escalating into a life-threatening issue.
Putting IoT into Practice
Naturally, IoT devices alone will not immediately transform an enterprise into a truly real-time business. To an extent, every organisation needs to become a software-as-a-service provider; able to combine knowledge of IoT, data science, and the ability to create applications that connect people, places and things in real-time. This may mean a substantial transformation of the business – but if successful, it will allow the enterprise to provide real-time data visualisation, alerts and notifications; integrate those with line-of-business systems so that the whole organisation can make the best decisions; enabling seamless authentication for clients, partners and employees so that individuals can gain the insights they need without putting sensitive data at risk.
Regardless of whether the organisation can manage this transformation by itself, or will need to employ specialist assistance, the transformation itself needs to be an enterprise-wide priority, with buy-in from the C-suite right down to end users. It also cannot be an IT-only project but must involve every relevant business unit. After all, IT departments will not know the stress tolerances and maintenance requirements of factory machinery; or what products to recommend to which retail customers. This means being able to show other business units how digital innovation can support them; how it will help them achieve their strategic objectives; and what specialist expertise will be crucial to the project’s success.
Taking Control of Data
How the organisation approaches data – both that it already possesses, and that generated by IoT devices – will also be critical to success. To begin with the enterprise has to perform a thorough audit of its data assets and how they are being used; and ensure that all data is correct, consistent and can be used as needed throughout the organisation. It can then make certain that new data created by IoT devices meets these standards.
The way in which data is processed and stored will also be crucial to allowing truly real-time operations. Performing all processing and analysis in a centralised server will be most convenient for most enterprises to access a centralised server. But when the organisation has hundreds or even thousands of devices sharing massive volumes of data, the cost of sharing, processing and storing that data will become too great a strain on the business.
Instead, organisations will need to embrace edge computing to ensure that data is processed, analysed and usable by the business in as close to real-time as possible. If processing is performed close to, or even on IoT devices, then insights will be available to the enterprise at a faster pace and at lower cost. This is especially true of truly time-sensitive applications, such as responding to medical emergencies, where even seconds of latency between an end device and a central server could mean the difference between life and death.
Edge computing doesn’t only mean reduced latency and cloud processing costs. It can also allow for a smarter approach to storing data – since devices can automatically delete data that is only needed in the short-term, uploading other data to a central cloud for analysis and longer-term insights. This can also be more secure, since authentication is carried out closer to end users and a decentralised infrastructure is less vulnerable to being taken entirely offline by a single attack.
Grabbing the Opportunity
Taking advantage of the IoT to become a real-time business is not necessarily a simple process for an organisation. It may demand a realignment of IT strategy across the organisation; and a completely new approach to the cloud. However, by as a way for organisations to become more agile, and to ensure they can stay ahead of their competitors, it will be the gift that keeps on giving.