Connecting our worlds

Read time 9min 00sec
Roger Hislop, Internet Solutions.
Roger Hislop, Internet Solutions.

The Internet of Things (IoT) used to be just another buzzword, an idea of how the future should look, and the promise it may hold. Fridges that order for you when the milk is low, lights you can turn on when you are almost home - from your smartphone.

IoT will also save companies money, because it's smart - and green - tech, and it's here now, in small ways we don't even appreciate.

However, with IoT comes a serious security risk, because everything is connected. What if a hacker accessed your light bulb, and then used that to get into your phone, and then the app you bank through?

Ian Jansen van Rensburg, senior manager of technical pre-sales at VMware Sub-Saharan Africa, who explains the first successful bi-directional transmission of clear speech `over a phone' was made by Bell and Watson on March 10, 1876, believes asking why we are moving to IoT is almost like asking why the world moved to communicating via phones.

Yet, World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck says it's not so much a case of the world moving to IoT, but of IoT invading the world, as IoT is gradually making its way into processes and systems where it makes sense.

There are several major forces driving the adoption of IoT. In the consumer space, the primary driver is convenience, while in the business world, it's data, says Stergios Saltas, MD of Striata South Africa.

JP Smith, pre-sales director of Sub-Saharan Africa at Hitachi Vantara, says IoT is becoming more important because innovation has become an imperative for companies hoping to compete in the next industrial revolution. It trims costs, as well as addressing challenges in internal operational performance. "It is only really a matter of time before the world we live in is completely connected."

But, as Roger Hislop, senior engineer of research and development at Internet Solutions points out, IoT is not a fundamentally new concept. "You could call industrial process control systems or telemetry systems from the 1970s 'IoT'."

He says what is moving the world now is that recent developments in IoT technology are making implementing 'the cyber-physical' really, really cheap. "Hooking up a devices and sensors to the internet now costs just a few dollars."


Hislop says there are many good reasons to connect our physical world with the digital world - from cost and labour savings, to faster response times to events. IoT will improve productivity and reduce costs; that's its entire purpose, he adds. "If you imagine every place in the business where a real-time data point would be useful, you start to get a sense of the potential. Think about being able to cheaply control lighting remotely, from a smart control system, without needing to do any major rewiring."

He cites benefits like automated systems that detect when machines are not running properly, and predict when they may fail. IoT can prevent us getting into situations where we only know a problem is brewing is when things actually fall apart, such as alerting us before a backup generator is out of diesel, he adds.

If the company that built your smart light bulbs goes out of business, its security protocols aren't going to be updated.

Stergios Saltas, Striata SA

The ability to monitor systems, assets and the environment brings with it infinite opportunities for new products and services, says Goldstuck. Fleet management and water leak detection are just two of the most obvious examples, he notes.

He says the benefits of IoT are already being seen in the impact of vehicle-tracking devices on the efficiency of fleet management, and traffic information. Yet, he notes, water leak and electricity fault detection are two very obvious areas of benefit, although South Africa will be slow to realise these.

Yet, says Hislop, the real challenge for the IoT industry is not to come up with compelling use cases as there are almost too many - options such as smart dog collars, emergency beacons for the frail or elderly, do-it-yourself products that let you add to your home automation or security system are endless.

Jansen van Rensburg adds that IoT will not only bring in new vehicle technologies, but will also completely revolutionise the car industry. As consumer vehicle requirements shift, carmakers must adopt new business models to keep pace with customer demands. In the near future, carmakers may think of themselves less as vehicle engineering firms and automotive OEMs and more as service providers and lifestyle enablers.

Apart from improving operational efficiency, IoT solutions open the gates for innovation and put companies in a position to move up their value chains by offering better and connected products, and new services based on these solutions, as well as gather valuable customer data that can be monetised, says Smith.

Where are we?

There are forecasts that the IoT installed base in South Africa will reach 35 million by 2020. But South Africa doesn't, as yet, have an IoT ecosystem, as deployments are too fragmented and disparate, says Goldstuck. However, he points out, we are moving past one of the five phases that Dell EMC and the IDC previously identified as necessary steps in the evolution towards smart cities.

For his part, Hislop notes South Africa has a growing number of players in the IoT field, and demand is sure to grow as enterprises embrace its potential.

However, no one company can do all of the 'IoT stuff' in an implementation as it requires a mixture of very different skills and expertise (like knowing what kind of dry contact you should use in a damp cable shaft, and which one you should use in a fridge), says Hislop. It requires specialists in user interface design, artificial intelligence or machine learning, and connectivity and device management, he says. "More so than any new technology, IoT is an ecosystem game."

But the mishmash of the elements in the ecosystem has created a problem. Goldstuck notes the rollout of IoT systems, networks, appliances and end-points has occurred in a haphazard fashion, which has given little consideration to standards, protocols, interoperability and security. The result is that many existing IoT deployments represent a security crisis waiting to happen, he argues.

"We've already seen the consequences in, for example, connected fridges being hijacked for a Botnet attack. We are likely to see utilities, hospitals, schools and transport infrastructure, among others, hacked in the near future."

As a result, says Goldstuck, networking and security standards and protocols need to be adopted in any IoT deployment. Specifically, he argues, IoT deployments need risk analysis, security assessment, and professional advice on securing all access points.

Saltas adds that there have already been several major hacks exploiting vulnerabilities in connected devices, with the most notable being the recent exploit that saw hackers take control of millions of connected devices, including smart fridges and TVs, to take down some of the web's biggest sites. He attributes these hacks to default passwords not being changed, and the fact that the IoT space is still much open and unconsolidated. "If the company that built your smart light bulbs goes out of business, its security protocols aren't going to be updated, massively increasing the inherent risk."

Saltas notes that, so far, most of these attacks have been through brute force, yet are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and could be used to steal confidential information from individuals and corporations. He says manufacturers and consumers need to up their game - and at the very least make sure passwords are secure.

Yet, Hislop argues security issues have been fairly overblown as security risks can be mitigated against, as many IoT technologies have pretty robust security models, and there are security wrappers you can put around them.

Security risks

It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which our fridge is being used by terrorists to hijack important websites and access confidential data. Scarily, that scenario is closer to everyday reality than an evil sci-fi plot. So you might soon have far more to worry about than a fridge devoid of tasty snacks...

Recently, hackers attacked a company called Dyn, which is in charge of routing (directing) an enormous amount of internet traffic, and installed software on devices like webcams and printers - without anyone realising what was happening. That software was then triggered to hit Dyn with a ton of traffic. The company suffered a disastrous crash, with the internet effectively giving a busy signal across a wide swathe of the US.

Arguably, the core problem is that in the rush to connect all devices to the net, designers and manufacturers are overlooking online security.

So although it's really cool to think that you can manage your home media system from your phone, or check with your fridge on whether or not the milk has expired, it's not that cool when you become an unwitting accomplice to wide-scale, international hacking.

Colin Thornton, MD of Turrito Networks and Dial a Nerd

A practical example:

SmartDraught has created a solution involving telemetry devices and its control unit to collect information of each and every pour of beer from a traditional dispense unit. Every time the handle is pulled and released, it collects the amount poured by means of a flow meter, the temperatures of the beer, the bar, the keg room and outside temperatures, along with many other factors such as wind speed and direction, air pressure and humidity, GPS coordinates and more.

This allows the company to manage the quality of the beer, the rate of beer flow on a daily basis and when the keg was attached to the beer line. This all is to ensure the beer is fresh, and not sold after it goes off.

This article was first published in the December 2017/January 2018 edition of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine. To read more, go to the Brainstorm website.

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