Enterprise IT in the Age of the Smart Forest

If you don’t see why IoT is relevant to your business, it might be time to take a walk in the smart forest.

You’d have a hard time finding a tech trend more widely slated for ubiquity than the Internet of Things (IoT). But will this increasingly vast network of sensor-enabled smart devices really infiltrate each and every corner of our world—including the realm of big business? The recent emergence of “smart forest” technology suggests that sensors, smart devices and all the hallmarks of IoT will be turning up in even the most unlikely and remote of places.

The smart forest trend suggests that IoT is indeed more than just hype. And that it’s time to figure out how you can prepare your business.

Earth Day and Smart Trees

While tech-savvy people seem to understand that IoT is going to be an extremely widespread phenomenon, there is still a general perception associating it with urban environments or, at least, human habitation—smart cars, connected home appliances and the industrial internet, for example. But IoT-style sensors and connectivity can often do the most tangible good in more remote environments.

The wonders of smart forest tech were being written about recently in relation to Earth Day 2018. But as far back as 2015, Haaretz was reporting on Saturnas, an Israeli start-up developing “smart irrigation” technology involving sensors able to tell when a tree is thirsty (not just when the ground is dry). These sensors then transmit data to a central, automated irrigation system, enabling more effective watering and more sustainable use of increasingly scarce fresh water.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has its own Smart Forests project, which is gathering valuable environmental data from experimental forests across the US. This program is using sensor technology and wireless connectivity to monitor everything from precipitation to bird song, soil moisture, tress growth, animal population levels, solar radiation, gas flux and much more.

The levels of connectivity and automated data gathering that IoT technology makes possible is a vast boon to researchers. It allows the USDA to gather an extraordinary amount and diversity of data from a wide range of environments (ranging from Fairbanks, Alaska to a tropical forest in Hawaii) then drives all this information into an integrated research and monitoring program—creating efficiencies, breaking down silos and enabling insights.

There are a number of lessons here for those of us in the enterprise world. Broadly, it warns us not to outright dismiss a major tech innovation just because we don’t immediately see a use case that’s right for us. More specifically, it is a stark illustration of IoT’s oncoming ubiquity. But most significantly, it shows how this kind of smart connectivity can capture the specific types of value that most enterprises are constantly chasing.

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Digital Transformation Everywhere

In popular culture, IoT is often mentioned in relation to oddball or arguably pointless use cases—IoT skeptics seem oddly obsessed with smart fridges, for instance. But taking digital transformation seriously means taking all of the weird and wonderful innovations of the digital age seriously. Not of all them will be relevant for your business, but those with the greatest scope and impact inevitably will. IoT certainly fits into this category.

Forward-thinking enterprises realize that IoT is no joke. Looking at the example of smart forest technology doesn’t just show us that sensors and connected devices can be useful in unlikely places, it also provides solid examples of how IoT can benefit an enterprise. The example of Saturnas provides a clear illustration of now IoT can be used to assess demand, monitor inventory, allocate resources and distribute goods in an automated fashion.

Not only does IoT create efficiencies, it also generates insight. This is how the USDA is using smart forest technology—to collect vast amounts of data on every aspect of the environment it is monitoring. In use cases like this, remarkable and unexpected insights can be created via big data analytics. You might not see a relevant link between precipitation levels and bird song (or whatever the equivalents may be in your organization), but big data analytics just might.

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Architecting the Future

At this stage, there’s no time for IoT skepticism. Being able to create new efficiencies and gain unexpected insights could give you significant business advantages. On the other hand, if your competitors are already working on leveraging IoT, they may be developing innovative use cases that leave you scrambling to catch up. This is particularly significant because building an effective IoT platform is not a simple matter.

The winners in the race to get value from IoT will be those enterprises that achieve a head start on building the infrastructure which makes it possible to deploy solutions in a scalable and secure manner. In IoT, having a future-focused IT infrastructure is absolutely vital. Running a network of connected devices demands investment in specialized security tools, API-based integration, granular performance monitoring and more.

Integration and security are major challenges here. As you probably know, IoT consists of billions of devices. Each one of these devices needs at least one API, so that it can interface with other devices, end users and backend systems. And this all needs to happen at scale, without impacting system performance. Each API is also a potential attack surface, making a smart device network an attractive target for cybercriminals planning botnet attacks.

These are challenges that cannot go unaddressed. The time has come to start building a safe, reliable and effective infrastructure for a smart, connected future.

Samuel Macklin
By Samuel Macklin | May 02, 2018