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Companies pave new pathways to business-ready IoT technologies

Companies showcased new business potential with IoT technologies at the IBM InterConnect conference. But enterprises may need to invest in infrastructure to get on the IoT path.

LAS VEGAS  -- Whether your company is in manufacturing or customer service, facilities management or transportation, IoT technology is headed your way.

If your executive team has waved off enterprise IoT strategy as too futuristic to worry about today, that may be misguided.

The message at the March IBM InterConnect conference was resounding: The Internet of Things (IoT) is coming to enterprises. IBM also highlighted the power of combining IoT technology with cognitive computing capabilities, such as Watson, IBM’s cognitive computing offering, dubbing the duo the Genius of Things.

Actor Will Smith speaking at Monday’s IBM InterConnect keynote.

IoT sensors can deliver data about temperature, location, product status, customer whereabouts and more. With analysis, this information can yield new product ideas, personalize customer service and streamline inefficient operations. Nonetheless, many companies are trying to understand how IoT makes sense. Others are assessing whether their infrastructure can keep pace with massive real-time data flows.  

Improving railway operations, boosting customer service

According to Gartner Inc., IoT adoption is tentative but growing, with companies trying to get a handle on the tangible business benefits they can achieve today. Among nearly 500 respondents, to a late 2015 survey, less than a third (29%) said they were using IoT technology, though an additional 14% said they planned to implement IoT in the coming year, and another 21% considering implementation this year.

But some enterprises have already begun to pave a path to IoT, where data insights are ingrained into daily operations. Consider SNCF, the French railway, which carries some 13.5 million passengers a day. SNCF now uses IoT technology on trains and tracks to gather hundreds of thousands of sensor data points to improve railway safety and efficiency.

"We use sensors to ensure that doors open and close at the right time," said Benoit Tiers, chief digital and information officer at SNCF. That kind of intelligence ensures passenger safety.

SNCF also uses IoT technology to optimize maintenance of trains, where trains can be serviced more quickly, potentially minimizing costly repairs and boosting train reliability.

"When trains arrive at maintenance centers, we are waiting for them," Tiers said. "We are making this a priority because we want repairs and maintenance to go faster—much faster." 

IoT technologies usher in employee-driven workplace

At ISS World, a workplace management company in Copenhagen, IoT sensors and a data-driven workplace have redefined building design, placing employee productivity at the center.

"We don’t organize around our services anymore; we organize around how employees of the building experience our services," said Martin Gaarn Thomsen, the chief operating officer of ISS World.  

Identifying available conferences rooms, desk seating, coffee machine availability as well as dry cleaning and other employee services are high priorities to keep employees engaged and satisfied in their everyday experience. So workflows and service delivery are designed around employee comings and goings, Thomas said. When a client or employee arrives at the building, sensors can collect various data points, such as a user’s basic information, whom he is meeting with and which meeting room he should go to.

ISS also uses IoT sensors to moderate temperature and lighting specific to employee needs and deploys cleaning crews based on sensor information that a meeting room is vacated and needs attention. It also uses sensors to help guide employees on available meeting space.

"ISS is trying to make the building intelligent and make the workplace more productive . . .  to attract and retain the right talent," Gaarn Thomsen said. "Technology can help us support these experiences . . . but with the power of the human touch."

Enabling IoT technologies through the infrastructure

If companies are still sorting out how to incorporate IoT devices into daily operations, they’re also determining whether their infrastructure can keep pace with new data requirements.

Companies need to be able to ensure performance and uptime in the network – particularly for greater volumes and velocity of data generated by IoT devices. As they explore their infrastructure’s suitability, new approaches such as software-defined networking (SDN) are becoming to infrastructure planning. SDN can help identify downtime and traffic bottlenecks and proactively address performance issues with automation. Network designs like SDN, alongside new analytics and virtualization strategies, are central to making IoT an enterprise reality.

Network and other infrastructure upgrades to better support cloud computing technologies and IoT have become more important for companies over the past few years. According to a recent CDW Corp. survey, for example, of more than 500 respondents, of respondents making network upgrades, 77% said that they will increase their investment in routers and switches. More than half (54%) also said that wireless upgrades are necessary.

Lauren Horwitz

Managing Editor, Cisco.com