It’s 8:30 AM. Conference Room B will be hosting a meeting at 9:00, so it has to get ready. It starts raising the temperature from a standby 60° F. to a more comfortable 70°.
At 8:53, the coffee machine notifies all subscribing employees in its area that Vienna Roast is ready.
At 8:55 no one has walked in, but the room puts a few things in order. It’s sunny outside, but there won’t be any direct sunlight into the room, so it opens the blinds. It turns on the projector so it will be ready. A small screen by the door tells passersby what’s scheduled. The lights don’t come on until the first person walks in.
As people enter, they touch their ID cards to the seats they choose. The seats adjust their height and back angles according to their stored preferences.
When the meeting is over, there’s nothing scheduled for an hour, so the room goes into daytime standby mode. The thermostat drops to 65° F, close enough to most people’s preferred room temperature that it can reach it quickly. The lights stay dim as long as no one is there.
This might be a scene from a futuristic movie, but nothing about it is far out of reach today. Smart furniture, sensor-controlled lighting, smart coffee machines, programmable thermostats, and weather-adjusting blinds are all on the market. It’s all part of the Internet of Things (IoT).
What is the Internet of Things?
When people talk about the IoT, they’re talking about devices or appliances which have a small built-in computer that can connect to a network. They can receive directions or send information remotely. The IoT isn’t a distinct network, and the devices don’t have to be directly connected to the Internet. The devices might be thermostats, light bulbs, TV sets, doors, elevators — anything that could benefit from some intelligence.
Devices use wireless connections; having an Ethernet cable for every smart thermostat, light bulb, and sink would be wildly impractical. Connections today are usually by Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. 5G technology will assume a major role in the near future.
The devices themselves don’t have a lot of computing power. They don’t need a lot to set schedules and to adjust their status from sensor inputs. But they gain real power when they’re connected to a server that can track their usage and make strategic decisions for them. This combination produces what’s known as the “connected office.” It’s not just individual devices but the whole local network that act intelligently to meet and anticipate the employees’ needs.
A new way of thinking about the office
The IoT will change the way the workplace operates. In the future, people will work not just in connected offices but in “smart buildings.” Lights, heating, elevators, and even furniture will respond to their needs. Today, most spaces in offices are dedicated to one kind of use. In the future, they could reconfigure themselves to serve different purposes. Add some robotics, and a conference room could transform itself into a lunchroom on demand. Touchscreen walls will aid in conferences, or they’ll provide a pleasant background when they aren’t otherwise needed.
Fixed locations won’t be as important. People will be able to do what they need from wherever they are, communicating with machines as well as people. Smartphone apps will let them set devices remotely.
Businesses will gain multiple benefits:
- Energy savings: Lighting, heating, and cooling will adjust to people’s needs and go on standby when no one needs them. Excessively frigid air conditioning will become a thing of the past as systems adapt to people’s actual wishes.
- Work efficiency: Smart systems will anticipate employees’ needs and prepare their environments for them. They’ll spend less time having to make adjustments. Supply tracking will keep them from running out of the things they need.
- Employee convenience: Things which aren’t strictly necessities make a difference in morale and satisfaction. Many offices run on coffee. Making sure it doesn’t run out or get cold means more alert, less cranky employees.
A connected office is more than the sum of its devices. Each device has little intelligence by itself. On-premises or cloud servers coordinate them so that the whole office runs more smoothly. Employees’ requirements vary by the time of day, day of week, and season. Scheduled events drive the way facilities and devices will be used. If the office schedules casual days, perhaps it should be a few degrees warmer then. If a lot of visitors are expected, it could even change the decor to welcome them.
Analytics is an important tool. Collecting and analyzing data can find patterns which managers hadn’t noticed. Adjusting device behavior based on these patterns results in more efficient use and lower energy costs.
Machine learning produces the most sophisticated adjustments. In early 2017, IBM opened the Watson IoT Global Headquarters to advance research in artificial intelligence and machine learning for connected devices. A network driven by machine learning can anticipate needs and provide for them in advance, putting together the data from lots of devices. Higher coffee consumption than usual — yes, everything keeps coming back to coffee — could indicate an especially busy day ahead, requiring adjustments in meeting support and supplies.
If meeting rooms are already being used to the limit, a room management system can rearrange their use so that one more meeting will fit. It can have intelligence about which meetings are expendable and which ones take priority, so it can bump a low-priority use for a higher one.
Coordinated office information helps in making management decisions. It can provide information about what facilities are being used and what they cost. Managers can set priorities to use facilities more efficiently and reduce waste.
The office of the future?
People are looking into imaginative uses of the IoT for offices. Some ideas are obvious, such as improving physical safety and security. Others verge on science fiction.
“Smart materials” can control the acoustics of a room. People don’t often think about acoustics, but they affect the usability and comfort a space provides. Too live a space means echoes and a harsh feeling. Normal conversation can make the room noisy. Damping the sound gives a more relaxed ambiance, but too much makes it hard to hear people. Acoustic manipulation can set up a hot spot in a room, where a person standing is audible to everyone, while sounds in other spots don’t carry as much.
Lighting controls offer just as much versatility. A room can have several lighting profiles for different times of day and purposes. Individuals have their own preferences, and different kinds of light work best for discussions, presentations, and informal breaks.
Preparing for the IoT
Setting up the transition is a challenging task. Many people forget that each IoT device is a computer in its own right and needs to be treated with the same care as bigger computers. Using them in a big way can increase the size of the office network by a factor of a hundred.
This creates a challenge for management and IT. Both of them have important roles. The IT department needs to approve, configure, and maintain all these devices. Management needs to set policies about their use. If either group neglects its obligations, they can expect problems.
The work should start before installing any smart devices. Management needs to set priorities and decide what uses are most important. Adding capabilities just because they’re “cool” is the wrong way to go. A device should meet a need and offer a clear benefit.
IT has a huge job setting up the groundwork. It needs to prepare for a vastly bigger network. It should set up a subnet for the devices, so they aren’t too entangled with the business systems. The firewall needs to take them all into account.
Certain procedures are necessary whenever a new workstation or server is installed. There need to be comparable procedures for any computing device on the network, no matter how minor its function. At the same time, the procedures need to be scalable so that they don’t overwhelm the staff.
Having a truly connected office requires centrally managing all the components. Otherwise it’s just a collection of gadgets. Management and IT need to agree on how to do this. Selecting a good cloud service or in-house software for control and analytics requires looking through the available alternatives carefully. The best choice depends on the devices being used as well as the business’s needs.
The installation of devices should be slow at first, to let the people responsible learn the process and discover any problems. It’s not acceptable to plug a device in and just use it. Every installation requires configuration. IT needs a map of all the devices in use, showing where they are on the network. Unaccounted devices can’t work properly with each other, and they open security holes. Visibility of devices is a huge problem, with uncertainty about who is responsible as a major factor.
Often line-of-business users take on the responsibility, not really thinking of the devices they’re adding as network technology. They don’t have the necessary skills and understanding without any assistance from IT.
There’s a limit to how quickly a company can add devices and keep them under control. If it adds them helter-skelter, they’re rogue devices. It has to determine each one’s place and configuration in the network. IT needs to develop procedures that will let it handle so many devices. Automated processes, with tools like Azure IoT Hub, will play a growing role in configuration management.
One big reason IT management is so important is that badly configured IoT devices are a serious security risk. Each device has little computing power, but large numbers of them running coordinated malware can do huge damage. The Mirai botnet is the best-known example. It took control of over 600,000 devices to launch distributed denial of service attacks. At their peak, these DDoS attacks exceeded 1 terabyte per second, breaking all previous records. On October 21, 2016, one of its attacks disabled several major Internet sites in the United States for most of a day.
Some configuration work is necessary to make these devices secure. The network firewall needs to protect them, and their passwords need to be changed from the default. Many of these devices can’t be made secure even with serious effort. Buying the cheapest gadgets from no-name companies can be costly.
Evaluating IoT security requires asking a number of questions:
- How configurable is the device?
- Does it use secure communication?
- Does it implement its own Wi-Fi access point? This can be a source of trouble.
- Can it run security software?
- Can it be upgraded?
IoT devices shouldn’t be directly exposed to the Internet. Running them all behind a proxy server that filters traffic is a safer approach. They should be on their own subnet, so that they can’t get access to sensitive data.
A smart thermostat or a display panel built into a wall may stay in place for many years. It needs to be periodically evaluated for security issues. If upgrades stop becoming available for it, it could become a vulnerable target for getting a foothold in the network.
Adding smart devices to an office requires a smart strategy. Adding them haphazardly will fail to deliver their full value, and it will open up security risks. The goal should be an office with devices that work with each other and deliver value to the business and employees.
Management and IT need to be fully committed to working together to make it right. The company’s management needs to give the process direction, knowing that their decisions will have a strong effect on the business’s future. The IT department needs to keep control of a much larger number of devices than they’ve ever dealt with before. The employees need to learn how all the new gadgets will help them. Even though they seem simple, training may be necessary for people to get the most out of them.
It’s a long road and can’t be rushed. Following it carefully will let the office accomplish things its people hadn’t dreamed of before. And, of course, hot coffee will always be available.