Internet of Things: Networking Challenges

With the increasing hype around Internet of Things (IoT) and Internet of Everything (IoE), pundits, vendors and analysts are projecting that tens of billions of devices will get connected over the next few years. As a Network Engineer working in mostly Enterprise scenarios, I am curious to know the implications of IoT on network design, deployment and operations. Keeping aside massive computing power that is required to analyze the data sent by devices, sensors, machines, vehicles, wearable gadgets etc., the foundational requirement of connecting diverse set of end-points seems highly challenging. While no one has full answers as we are early into the hype phase, with some of the standards bodies beginning to announce their initiatives to bring this all together, I have tried to capture many of these challenges from the network design and operations perspective.

  • End-point Connectivity: I don’t think there will be much of a challenge in handling the wired connections. It’s the wireless connections that will pose many challenges. Given the range of devices which will operate with low power, we will have diverse wireless connectivity mechanisms ranging from 2G/3G/LTE, Wi-Fi to Wireless Personal Area Networks (WPANs). There are many emerging & competing WPAN standards such as Bluetooth Low Energy, Zigby, Z-wave, ISA100.11a, WirelessHART etc. Many of these are specified under the IEEE 802.15.4 standard. Some early demonstrations of Visible Light Communication (VLC) have also taken place which may some use cases. It will be interesting to see how all this evolves and which standards the industry will settle upon.
  • Scalability, Performance & Resiliency: Given the current challenges around transition from IPv4 to IPv6, there are many questions on how we can achieve a scalable network that connects tens of billions of devices in the future. Within a private network, the address scalability is unlikely to pose any big challenges, but home automation, wearable gadgets, mobile devices, field sensors, transportation systems, power grid sensors, etc. will require us to solve the IPv4 exhaustion problem and be ready with a truly scalable network. The network should handle diverse performance requirements as we will have low power and low data rate devices such as sensors that may transmit few bytes a minute to high data rate devices such as cameras generating multi-megabit video feeds will generate massive amounts of data. Large scale networks today keep the core of the network simple while all the complexity is handled at the edge. The same principle should help us build massively scalable networks to handle IoT requirements in future. Traditional networks with distributed control planes have provided Internet scale resiliency. I keep hearing about SDN in the context of IoT. SDN with decoupled control plane may work well within the boundaries of a Data Center, but the idea of using SDN to control a network on IoT scale is farfetched given the scalability limits of decoupled control plane. However, SDN may have a role in the hybrid mode where it can perform provisioning, policy and management automation while leaving forwarding decisions to the distributed control plane.
  • Interoperability: Given a plethora of last mile connectivity options especially for the wireless end-points, we should expect interoperability challenges. While no one has any answers, vendor consortiums and standards bodies are showing an interest to address this issue. One should be cautious given the fact that standards bodies will take years to come up with any meaningful and practical standards.
  • Manageability: This is going to be one of the biggest challenges considering how poorly most organizations manage their networks today. With an explosion of devices, network automation becomes an imperative without which network management would be extremely difficult.
  • Security, Compliance & Governance: This is one of the biggest concerns any organization will have regarding IoT. Given the enormous problems with current Network Admission Control systems around design, deployment and interoperability, there is no clarity on how we will classify devices, provide authenticated access, and ensure end-point security for an Enterprise considering IoT deployments. The attack surface has clearly increased with highly mobile devices today, with all sorts of non-IT devices getting connected; security, data privacy and governance become top concerns.
  • Cost: Finally, we have to tackle the issue of cost related to deployment and operations. Enterprises will need strong business case with a RoI model that provides business value in the end. While there are interesting IoT use cases for many industry verticals, it will be the line of business heads that will need to be convinced about the value of IoT and they are likely going to be the key decision makers.

As with any emerging trend early in the hype cycle, IoT leaves us with too many technical questions at present. In the Enterprise business world, IoT adoption and success will be determined by the business value derived from the use cases.


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