The Internet of Things, Big Data and ITSM

Science fiction becoming science fact
Science fiction becoming science fact

I have noticed recently during my travels with EasyVista, that Hotel staff have begun to offer two or three WIFI codes on check-in, in recognition of the fact that we are all carrying multiple devices. Like sheep and rats, devices connected to the Internet outnumber humans.

The number of objects connected to the Internet actually surpassed humans back in 2008. According to Cisco 12.5 billion devices were connected in 2010 and they predict 25BN devices by 2015 and 50BN by 2020. Nowadays the average professional might be connected via their phone, tablet and PC. In a few years time you might also add their home thermostat, fridge, home media centre, home surveillance system, health monitoring system and so on.

The Internet of Things

This growing trend of everyday objects sending and receiving data over the Internet is known as the Internet of things or industrialized Internet.

Sensors can be embedded everywhere and programmed to either communicate with us, or communicate with each other.

Machine-to-Machine Communications (M2M)

RFID chips have led the way in devices communicating data about themselves – but this has been surpassed by the incredibly low cost and ease of access of simply providing devices with WIFI connectivity and management control with a cheap smart phone app.

In the absence of a usable WIFI connection, many devices can use a simple mobile phone SIM card to communicate with the wider world. M2M is a huge growth area for the mobile telecommunications industry, especially as connected devices are growing at a faster rate than humans and can provide significant strategic advantage to businesses that analyze and act on their activity.

Runbook Automation – If this, then that

Futurists have long predicted the fridge that can order it’s own food. But the Internet of Things is far from science fiction. Smart meters and apps on smart phones can already monitor and regulate heating in your home or remind you of tasks to be done based on location.

One of the most fascinating developments in the last couple of years is for devices and services to perform actions based on certain criteria. This is demonstrated perfectly via the free online service IFTTT (If this, then that). Simply connect your online services and use ‘recipes’ to automate tasks such as ‘Turn on the lights when I go into a room’. 16 years ago I travelled to Microsoft in Seattle. I had a meeting with Steve Ballmer, but while I was there, one of the execs showed me around ‘Microsoft house’. When you walked from the bedroom into the lounge, the building sensed nobody was in the bedroom, so the wall moved making the lounge bigger and the bedroom smaller. Perhaps a little too visionary, but it was clever.

It is only matter of time before these consumer-oriented services are standard in the enterprise; Zapier is an example of a corporate grade automation tool for joining together hundreds of different SaaS APIs. If the automation sounds too trivial for business consider that pharmaceuticals are building tablets that can signal when they’ve been swallowed or suitcases that can tell passengers their luggage has been loaded on the wrong flight.

Enterprise Automation

Early adopters for such automation are logistics companies using efficient freight routing or redirection based on real time congestion data to save fuel and time. Manufacturing plants are using sensors to adjust the position of component parts in the assembly process to improve efficiency and reduce errors.

The same logic can be applied to the delivery of IT Services:

  • Enterprise objects can have an online ‘information shadow’ similar to the additional reference material found on a Google map or an augmented reality. Printers have long been able to communicate their status over the network – this can be applied to all things a business owns.
  • Support can be provided in context. In an ideal world I only want to be reminded to buy batteries when I’m stood in the queue at the supermarket next to the batteries. The same filtering can be applied to support – for example knowledgebase information can be shown when customers are in a certain location, or using a certain process or device.
  • Devices can also create new knowledge or provide intelligent services. IBM’s Watson is already answering help desk calls.
  • Smart business equipment can report their own faults in real time, and use predictive analysis to prevent failures in the future.  Field service operations can be quicker and more efficient.

Automating a network of connected devices over the Internet is obviously not without risk. As with all IT Services, organizations need to be concerned with what happens with a system failure, or the ramifications of a vulnerability attack when business devices are automated and autonomous. Privacy of data and cultural shifts should also be considered, the UK retailer Tesco received complaints from packing staff for using armbands on staff to track worker productivity.

What this means for IT Service and support

What does this mean to those delivering and supporting IT services?

Ultimately businesses can harness data collected from the Internet of Things to provide better services and make better decisions based on real time data. All of these devices and online services create unprecedented volumes of data to analyze (known as Big Data). For IT Service Management professionals, new skills will be required to visualize these huge data sets, draw insights from the data exhaust and architect run book automation scenarios.

Traditionally IT support have used data from tickets or infrastructure to facilitate support – the great opportunity with the Internet of Things is to learn more about the users themselves and their behavior in order to provide exceptional support.

It also means that IT may just become BFF with marketing 😉

Why the CIO won't go the same way as the VP of Electricity

Dead as a...
CIO, Dead as a… ?

Commoditisation is, without doubt, a massive and revolutionary trend in IT. In just a handful of years, a huge range of industrialised, cost-effective solutions have created rapid change, so much so that some commentators now predict the end of the corporate IT department altogether.

Info-Tech Research Group’s June 2013 article highlights a comparison made by some, between today’s CIO, and the “VP of Electricity” role apparently ubiquitous in large organisations at the turn of the last century.

As electricity supply standardised and industrialised, the argument goes, the unsuspecting VP of Electricity (and presumably their whole department) found themselves anachronistic and redundant.

It’s a very flawed comparison. There can be no doubt that consumerisation is a reality, but business IT and electricity provision are very different things.

IT Service is not a light switch

Utility electricity is what it is: we may have a choice of billing suppliers, and perhaps several different options at the point of connection (such as smart metering), but the end user sees very little difference: it’s the same product from the same wires. I flip the light switch, and the light comes on. There is very little scope to vary the service, at the point of consumption, to gain significant competitive edge.

Hence, from the end-user’s point of view, electricity is an absolute service: it’s either there, or it isn’t (and usually, it’s there: Britain’s national grid, for instance, works to – and achieves – a 99.9999% reliability target. By comparison, the granddaddy of commoditised IT infrastructure, Amazon AWS, offers 99.95% – lower by a factor of 500).

By contrast, our customers experience IT as much more than a simple on/off service. It is far more complex, multi-faceted, and variable. We could frequently change our electricity supplier, and our customers and end-users would never be aware. However, change one of the many elements of IT with which they interact, though, and we can make a significant difference to their working day.

For many end-users, in fact, the “light switch” experience seems a long way off. A Forrester study of 900 end users and 900 IT professionals, in January 2013, found, for example, that 84% of business users experienced a severe or moderate impact on their ability to be productive on a monthly basis, as a direct result of IT issues. 14% experience difficulties at least once per day. The study also revealed that there’s a large gap between how the business thinks about IT and how IT thinks about itself. The difference varies regionally, between 13 to 16 percentage points.

If it’s done well, however, IT is an immensely powerful and proven asset to the business. MITSloan’s seminal 2007 study, “Avoiding the Alignment Trap in Information Technology“, identified a best-of-breed group of organisations delivering true “IT-enabled growth”. This group, representing the top 7% of their large sample, was found to be achieving an average of 35% compound annual growth rate, while spending 15% less than the study average on IT.

Commoditised tools

In our IT Service Management functions, commoditisation is just as much a reality as in any other facet of IT. As Gartner Research Director Jeff Brooks put it, “In the ITSM space, and more specifically the use of ITSM tools for IT Service Desk, we continue to see vendors provide commoditised tools”.  Does that mean, then, all of those tools, and the functions which use them, are as good as they will ever be? Clearly not: in January 2012, Brooks’s organisation observed that the average maturity level in IT Infrastructure and Operations was 2.35 on their 1-to-5 scale: a “disheartening conclusion”. As Brooks added: “Opportunities for differentiation exist, but the vendors have yet to capitalise on those prospects”.

He’s right. Even as the service desk, or any other ITSM function, becomes ubiquitous enough to be considered by many to have become commoditised, our customers expectations evolve and change. The age of the smartphone has increased mobility, and put leading-edge, location-aware, always-on technologies into homes and pockets. New-look frontline services like Apple’s Genius Bar have created demand for new ways to get support. On-demand commodity services, though convenient, create new management challenges around costs, control, and alignment. We should never consider ourselves finished.

Growth is driven by effective alignment of technology and processes. Henry Ford did not change the car industry simply by switching to standardised services. He created differentiation by aligning great processes with great technology. Some of those technologies, such as his electricity supply, would likely have been the same commodity service consumed by all of Ford’s rivals, but he made the difference with the things he created around them.  Fundamentally, as long as technology and innovation can give one business an edge over another, the role of the technologist – including the CIO and their business unit – will be relevant.

After all, if all companies were to standardise on a single set of commoditised IT offerings today, by tomorrow some of them would have found significant advantages in breaking out of the pattern.

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