How VMware connects IoT to business
How VMware connects IoT to business

Ilia Temelkov, Editor-in-chief HiComm

How VMware connects IoT to business

Among the glamorous and high-profile premiers of new smartphones, tablets and laptops, the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona is also a venue of seemingly modest but equally significant events. Their impact is, however, best seen across the business community. VMware, the global leader in cloud infrastructure and virtualization, was among the most prominent participants this year as well. The array of news announced by the company was dominated by its focus on Internet of Things (IoT) applications in manufacturing, retail and many other business domains. Ms. Mimi Spier, VMware's Vice President for IoT business, told me more about these.

Information at the Edge

The headline news coming from the WBC in fact gravitated around the so called Edge Computing solutions announced by VMware. These are mainly intended for asset management and monitoring applications. The Edge Computing concept is about data redeployment and processing at the edge of the network. In other words, part of the information does not go to the cloud but remains close to the devices (“Things”). This saves time for both real time data transmission and processing. In IoT terms, data from certain sensors in an IoT network is not pushed to a remote cloud but is locally processed instead. While reducing sensor connectivity requirements, this can have positive impact on data security as the data is not supposed to leave the local network.

New Solutions

VMware announced three new solutions, first and foremost for bringing Hyper-Converged Infrastructure (HCI) closer to the edge by means of the Pulse IoT platform and HCI tools. This solution will enable sensor data to be processed in real time at the edge with VMware collaborating with partners offering the required analytical tools.
  • VMware strongly relies on partnerships with companies such as Dell EMC and Axis for its IoT solutions.
Another partnership, with Axis Communications and Dell EMC, is focused on a particular IoT-based smart monitoring product. Axis provides hardware such as IP cameras and routers while Dell EMC specializes in computing on servers called Dell Edge Gateways. VMware’s role is to manage the whole setup through Pulse IoT Center. In the same vein, VMware is working on a “modern bank of the future” where monitoring will help optimize security and user experience. Last but not least comes the manufacturing asset tracking tool developed together with Wipro Limited. For this purpose, Wipro’s Looking Glass platform will be integrated with the IoT Edge solutions from VMware. In addition to asset and data tracking, the solution will support an error screening functionality.

Major Business Concerns

The challenges VMware faces in the implementation of these solutions have been unexpected and interesting. Mimi Spier, VMware'с Vice President for IoT business, mentioned three key challenges for the integration of IoT solutions.
  • Businesses have three key concerns about IoT.
“The first obstacle we stumble upon is that clients should know what they want do to with IoT,” explains Ms. Spier. “Many come and say their Chief IT Officer believes they should have IoT, but do not know what exactly they need.”

VMware’s approach in such situations is to educate clients so they can ask themselves the right questions, e.g.  why they are undertaking this effort, how it will affect their key business goals, whether they expect to save costs, change their business or improve experiences.

Security Concerns

Another challenging area for IoT technologies is security. “Clients want to know how to protect their devices and ensure that some hack will not put them on the front page of The New York Times,” shared Ms. Spier. This is exactly why Edge Computing is superior to standard cloud-based IoT solutions: data remains closer to the device. VMware also uses a solution whereby authentication and encryption take place within the device itself, including software monitoring the health status of the device. “Temperature surges or other extremes may mean that the device is simply broken, or they might also point to a security-related event,” explains Ms. Spier.
  • IoT network security includes device health monitoring.
In this respect VMware again relies on a combination of partnerships and in-house efforts. One such partnership is with ZingBox, a US-based company which lets users track all activities on the network. This is important, because often times companies do not know what exactly is connected to their network, which is a security risk. Thus, device detection capabilities become increasingly important. ZingBox also monitors the network and learns its usual states so that it can detect suspicious activities, and all this takes place outside the devices.

VMware also plans to add functionality for specific actions such as device start up, shut down and quarantine, or the like. New ideas include developments such as gateway virtualization and a shift from “defending the devices” to “self-defending devices”. Last but not least is the access control capability. Thus, rather than being centered in a single area, security is distributed across several layers with each layer being responsible for different potential risks.

Between two worlds

The latter challenge proves to be much bigger than expected as it arises from the specifics of the industries targeted by VWware’s IoT initiatives: manufacturing, oil and gas, automotive, etc. These industries have always maintained a clear separation between their IT and OT divisions. While IT takes care of the data processing technologies exclusive of those that do not generate any data, the job of OT staff is to use computers for monitoring or altering the physical state of the company’s systems, e.g. operating robots working on an assembly line. The confluence of IT and OT functions in recent years is driven by the implementation of sophisticated equipment with connected sensors and software in an increasing range of business processes. The ultimate goal is to analyze machine-generated data in order to optimize manufacturing processes.

A successful IoT integration requires IT and OT collaboration. The catch here is that while IoT solutions are in the realm of IT divisions, which happen to be VMware’s core customers, they have to be implemented in an OT context. “I think that the people who actually make IoT have no idea about that. People at oil wells, utility networks, smart cities, municipalities, are not thinking about that at all,” Ms. Spier commented. Accordingly, part of VWware’s job is to connect  those who know about IoT with those whose work will be affected by the implementation of this technology.

Research by Gartner shows that about half of IoT projects in businesses will be implemented, understandably, by IT teams. Ms. Spier noted that “OT people are reluctant to deal with security, software patches, processor optimizations or network connectivity. I believe this is an opportunity to expand IT divisions as they will be more engaged.” This will certainly take time, especially in some industries. Others, however, are doing very well, including the oil and automotive sectors.

Large-Scale Future

By most conservative estimates, there will be 20 billion connected devices on this planet by 2020. The management of these devices is a challenge in its own right, but when a big part of them are in business use, the situation gets even more sensitive. Although such issues remain of secondary importance in the news coverage of phone premiers, dealing with the challenges around them will be of primary importance for the future we never stop dreaming of.
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