Don’t get comfortable, the internet of things is coming

Flat out
Flat out

The role of a chief information officer in a large company has its challenges. They have to intermediate between the messy world of business and the even messier world of IT. Their focus is on the risks, costs and opportunities of today and they have few resources to prepare for the future.

I would argue that the next big challenge in IT is something that most CIOs are not ready for. This is the integration of information technology (IT) with operational technology (OT). It is a question of how we manage the internet of things – devices communicating over the internet without human interaction.

To give a personal example, as CIO I supported the operation of a newly purchased ore crushing machine (OT) at a remote mine site. The machine needed to run optimization software that was hosted on the vendor’s computers. This meant connecting the machine through our corporate network (IT) to the vendor. The vendor had no security accreditation and did not offer the security tools that we insisted on from our regular IT suppliers.

The machine had been purchased and the investment in a second communications link was substantial. In the end we accepted an increased security risk, given the costs of mitigation.

There are 3 big challenges with the internet of things:

  1. Security. As soon as we connect devices to the internet, there is massively increased opportunity for malicious attack. Hackers from anywhere in the world may obtain access, as highlighted by Mandiant. Many suppliers of OT do not have the resources to invest in properly secured systems.It is just a matter of time before serious mechanical or safety incidents occur. The Stuxnet virus destroyed hardware used to enrich uranium in Iran, but also infected over 200 Australian based devices. The Australian Government Computer Emergency Response Team found that 35% of attacks were non-targeted and indiscriminate.
  2. Integration. As the complexity of internet of things devices increases, so does the ability to store and utilize data. This data needs to be exchanged efficiently with corporate IT systems, however there are few standards.One example I came across recently was from an engraving firm. They had a web site through which customers could place their orders. To get the details into the connected engraving machine required them to rekey all the data, leading to errors and wasted time.
  3. Purchasing. The people buying OT hardware and software have a focus on the performance of the system. They are often less expert at understanding the license conditions and costs of ongoing support. It is not uncommon to see the same corporate license purchased more than once in an organization.

Some organizations are taking the bull by the horns. At the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, they have put the engineering services for recording and digital editing under the CIO. The critical infrastructure providers such as the utilities and airports have invested in professional approaches to OT. For many however, this is another problem just waiting to happen.

Do you have any plans for the internet of things?

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