The Internet of Things: A software distribution minefield in the making?

In 2018, the ‘Internet of Things’ has rapidly moved from a theoretical concept to a tangible reality, with nearly 11 billion ‘things’ (not including phones and computers) now connected to the internet.

Going forward, says Stephen Dunkley, product manager at Kollective Technology, this interconnected web is only set to grow, with Gartner predicting that more than 20 billion IoT devices will be in use globally by 2020.

While many of these will be personal and household objects, such as wearables and smart home devices, there is a growing push for the IoT in industry and even within the office environment. From interactive displays to voice assistants, smart lighting right through to IoT-enabled thermostats, the Internet of Things is increasingly dominant within the workplace.

With the deluge of new internet enabled devices however, comes many potential network challenges for CIOs and IT managers. For every new device introduced into the workplace, IT teams must consider exactly how these devices impact the wider IT and security ecosystem. Each internet-enabled device will also require regular updates and patches to meet compliance protocols and guarantee that the organisation is protected against potential cyberattacks.

Following the move towards Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, enterprise IT teams are already struggling to keep on top of their growing and increasingly diverse list of employee devices. Now, with hundreds, or even thousands, of new IoT devices entering the workplace, this may be easier said than done.

Up until recently, IT leaders have been reluctant to introduce IoT devices into the workplace, with a myriad of security concerns overshadowing the devices’ overall usefulness. At the heart of this issue was a lack of centralised operating systems for the Internet of Things.

Where businesses can guarantee that all their computers and mobile devices run a single operating system (e.g. in a Windows environment or an Apple iOS environment), the Internet of Things offered no such luxury. In the early days of the IoT, most devices were developed by independent manufacturers, often using their own custom-built Linux operating systems. These custom OSs offered a concern for IT leaders, given that they rarely received security updates and were difficult to manage centrally and at scale.

In more recent years, the IoT market has evolved significantly with Google and Microsoft now offering fully formed operating systems designed specifically with the Internet of Things in mind. In the case of Microsoft’s operating system, Windows 10 IoT Core, businesses can now run IoT devices in the same Windows environment as their computer terminals.

This provides businesses with a unified ecosystem, allowing them to run simultaneous updates across all their devices. At the same time, IT teams can feel safe in the knowledge that Microsoft will continue to provide security patches and updates on a regular schedule.

While Microsoft’s IoT environment provides a more seamless and secure experience for businesses, it does not solve the larger problem of keeping so many devices up to date. Even with a singular operating system, enterprises will still need to distribute thousands of updates across their networks on an ever more frequent basis. For those organisations with distributed offices and outdated network infrastructures this represents a near impossible task.

Stephen Dunkley

Already, research from Kollective has shown that as many as 25% of businesses struggle to install patches and updates due to network scaling issues, while 1 in 10 simply do not have the bandwidth to install updates across their entire organisation. These distribution concerns can only be made worse as thousands of internet-enabled ‘things’ enter the work environment.

If, however, enterprises ignore this concern, and choose not to update their devices, they will be opening themselves up to a whole host of hacks, botnets and potential cyberattacks. To overcome this problem, many enterprises are turning to an unlikely solution – video streaming.

While video streaming technologies may not seem relevant to the IoT on the surface, the application of enterprise content delivery networks (ECDN) could provide a potential answer to these distribution concerns. ECDNs have been used for over a decade now to deliver and stream high quality video content at scale over legacy networks – but there is no reason why the exact same peer-to-peer technology couldn’t be used to distribute IoT software updates in the same way.

These cloud-based content delivery networks allow businesses that are still relying on legacy network infrastructures to share large files at high speeds. Companies like Kollective have now been able to adapt their existing video sharing software to distribute Windows 10 updates at scale and, soon, they will be able to the same with IoT software and OS updates.

By leveraging peer-to peer-network architecture, software defined ECDNs decrease the bandwidth load on an organisation’s network. The greater the number of peers across a complex distributed enterprise, the more efficient content delivery becomes compared to legacy hardware-based WAN optimisation solutions.

While companies will still have to manage their rollouts according to Microsoft’s schedule and their existing, strict SLAs, the use of an ECDN reduces many of the fears that IT managers have around timings and workload when it comes to distributing so many device updates.

This in turn can help large organisations keep thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – of IoT devices up-to-date, without putting a strain on their own networks. The result is a system which can provide continuous updates, at high speeds, all around the globe, offering an elegant solution to the IoT’s update and security concerns.

The author of this blog is Stephen Dunkley, product manager at Kollective Technology.

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