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IoT Architecture: 3 Things Every IT Professional Should Know

OK, folks. Let’s be real for a moment and acknowledge that everybody, every professional, and definitely every vendor out there is tossing out the phrase “IoT” like flyers on the Las Vegas strip. As an industry, we tend to use IoT to describe a breadth of networked devices, most often headless—those without a user attached—such as cameras, door entry systems, and HVAC controls. While I’m not going to slap your hand for completely disregarding IoT devices as special little unicorns in the world of tech, it’s worth noting there are some differences between many IoT devices and our traditional IT devices. If it’s suddenly your job as a technology or security professional to deploy, connect, manage, monitor, or secure part of an IoT infrastructure, these three concepts will help you on your journey.

1. IoT Communication Is Different

Starting at layers 1 and 2, the basic RF and modulation schema for IoT varies from traditional WLAN technologies. While many devices we lump in with IoT use traditional 802.11 wireless networks, many more leverage non-Wi-Fi wireless technologies designed for traversing longer distances, lowering power requirements (for the endpoint), and transmitting much smaller bandwidth. What this means for IT professionals is we’re re-entering an era of in-house spectrum management, where we may need to start documenting and tracking the frequencies in use to ensure we’re not layering systems that may introduce interference, especially in mission-critical IoT applications. Secondly, it means our troubleshooting and management strategies change, as standard WLAN monitoring and analysis won’t help with non-802.11 technologies. Additional tools and education will be required. In addition to the layers 1 and 2 changes, the structure of how and with what IoT devices communicate is different. The super-small form factors common in many IoT devices mean fewer resources to work with, and therefore less processing and storage. Large IoT deployments may number in not just hundreds, but thousands of tiny devices needing to communicate with centralized services through intermediary collectors.

2. Impact of IoT Form Factor

Traditional headless IT devices à la printers and even cameras come with beefy resources compared to the very lightweight devices of (for example) advanced sensor networks. Imagine tiny little devices embedded in structures to measure stress, or micro-sized sensors implanted in the ground to measure soil acidity. These itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny things don’t have the processing power or local storage to do much of anything but send blips back to a mothership. On top of those limitations, these devices require power and are mostly installed in hard-to-reach places. While self-powered IoT technology exists, there are still many limitations. The trifecta of form factor challenges—resource restraints, power limitations, and challenging locations—presents new challenges in deploying, managing, monitoring, and securing IoT devices. Those of us in traditional IT should understand these tiny gadgets may not support the type of provisioning, management, and monitoring we’re accustomed to. We can’t always patch or even locate certain devices after they’re deployed.

3. IoT and the OT Culture

IoT can be described as the love child of IT and OT, OT being Operational Technology. OT is all the technology correlated with the physical (vs. digital) world. OT encompasses the sensors, actuators, pumps—things that measure or move things in physical space. It’s relevant here to understand the culture clash and misaligned expectations that can occur when interacting with IoT manufacturers, vendors, and technicians. Chances are, your IoT manufacturer resources will have experience more aligned with industrial and mechanical engineering than the electrical engineering history of our fellow IT comrades. What this means for you, as the IT professional, is you may need to exercise both patience to explain your world to your new OT friend, and some humility to learn from him or her about their world. Chances are the IoT professional with the OT background will know about IP addresses only in the context of what’s on a sheet they’ve been given, and won’t have a native understanding of IP addressing, networks, routing, VLANs, or even MAC addresses. Secondly, the manufacturers of IoT devices sometimes put bizarre specifications in their product, and for IoT devices connecting to traditional LAN/WLAN networks, they may have some odd requirements around networking that you’ll have to push back on. Specifically, perhaps segmentation is either too restrictive or too lax, TCP/UPD communication port requirements may not be accurate, and wireless SSID configurations conflict with other parts of your infrastructure.
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Jennifer Minella
Jennifer Minella is VP of Engineering and Security with Carolina Advanced Digital, Inc. In her engineering role, Minella leads strategic research and consulting for government…
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