Don’t let your IoT project be another connected flip flop

From ‘smart’ flip flops to connected vending machines, IoT projects without a clear business application could open the gates to hackers and provide little value

Latest in the explosion of IoT connected devices is the ‘smart’ flip flops from Hari Mari, which includes a microchip that can send discounts to the wearer’s phone if he or she downloads the associated app. The chip does not track its wearer, or count steps, or gather any other information. Instead the idea is that if their shoppers register for an app that connects to their shoe, this will provide the retailer with basic data, such as email addresses for interested customers.

But although this kind of business-customer connection through data and discounts is useful for marketing purposes, all of these benefits come through the app, rather than the connected shoe. Rewards could just as easily be sent straight to the customers’ phone, without having to invest in developing an entirely new wearable technology for a usually cheap piece of clothing.

Perhaps the flip flop microchip is a nice gimmick to encourage buyers to download the app and share data with the retailer – but it hardly seems worth the investment of connecting a shoe to the internet.

Gartner has estimated that by 2020 the number of connected devices will have tripled, bringing the total to 21 billion. With this level of development, businesses want to stay ahead of the game and invest in IoT, to make the most of the new technology available to them. But to generate real value, these systems have to be designed with a clear business objective in mind, or they risk becoming an expensive vanity project.

To really harness IoT and make the most of projects, decision makers should set out specific goals for what exactly it is that they want an IoT system to achieve

To really harness IoT and make the most of projects, decision makers should set out specific goals for what exactly it is that they want an IoT system to achieve. They need to have business outcomes decided before the start of the project, so that the entire operation is not just a flashy waste of money, but something that adds real value to the company’s processes.

If the connected flip flop was designed to count footsteps from the vibrations in the sole, and connect this data to a fitness app, this could have real business value. If it could be used to monitor the state of the shoe, noting faults and predicting breakage, it could warn the owner before breaking in the middle of a stony beach a long walk from home.

Of course, this kind of investment would be much more expensive than the shoe itself. But with larger equipment, IoT sensors that monitor the health of a devices can have immense business value. Mining companies have recently been investing in connected vehicles with data loggers connected to engines, torque converters, transmissions and differentials to monitor the health of trucks in the mine.

This means that, without having to perform constant check-ups on the health of every machine, engineers are given insight to order parts and make vital fixes before failure, saving money on repairs and avoiding the colossal time wastage that occurs when a vehicle breaks down in the middle of a tight supply route. The innovation needs to generate an outcome worth the money it costs to develop.

Before leaping into an IoT project, businesses need to make sure they have the infrastructure to support what they want to achieve, and the expertise to ensure that it actually works. A study by Cisco has found that 60 percent of IoT initiatives don’t get past a proof of concept (PoC).  Many companies rely on old legacy systems that cannot support the complexity of new technologies requiring the digestion of large amounts of data. To put an IoT project into place properly, businesses need to assess whether their infrastructure is ready to support it, and update networks and protocols accordingly.

IoT also needs to be integrated into this infrastructure holistically, not just tacked on the end. Earlier this year a university in the US found its internet essentially unusable due to an unprecedented amount of traffic. After investigation it discovered that its vending machines, which were connected to the internet, had been hacked, overwhelming the network with large orders for seafood.

Because the machines were plugged straight into the university’s main network, the incident had a serious knock-on effect that caused problems for the whole system. IoT infrastructure needs to be carefully organised and segmented, with air gaps between essential and non-essential devices and networks.

Connecting the vending machines openly into the entire network also means they would have been connected to student records and financial data, which is a huge cybersecurity threat. This is perhaps the biggest risk for IoT systems. To make the most of IoT applications, businesses have to make sure that they’re safe. The Dyn Denial of Service attack, the biggest attack of its kind in history, saw many major websites temporarily brought down, including Twitter, Netflix and CNN.

An estimated 100,000 unprotected IoT devices were infected with malware by hackers. The servers of Dyn, which runs much of the internet’s domain-name infrastructure, were attacked by a network of these devices which bombarded it with so much traffic that the systems crashed.

Whilst many businesses and consumers would always put a firewall on their laptops and computer systems, fewer people think about the cybersecurity of a fridge. But companies need to take cybersecurity seriously so that their IoT projects do not become a serious flaw in their systems.

It is not enough to simply put a microchip into every device big enough for one

In recent years IoT applications have been used to optimise business processes across the board, and the potential of connected devices is huge. But to really make the most of IoT, businesses need to take a holistic approach. It is not enough to simply put a microchip into every device big enough for one.

IoT projects need to be implemented under the guidance of a clear strategy, used and understood by the whole business, not just the IT team. They need to be integrated properly, with the right security protections, to work harmoniously within the IT infrastructure and not pose a risk to the wider system.

And most of all, to avoid being a vanity project, they need to be implemented with a clear business application in mind to make sure they are worth the cost of production – and not just an expensive flip flop.

By Ben Boswell, VP Europe at World Wide Technology