The Internet of Things and Your Not so Humble Fridge

23rd Jun 2015

So the latest buzz phrase has now well and truly entered the technology lexicon…the ‘Internet of Things’ (shortened to IoT) is perhaps the hottest topic in IT right now (let us not forget the rapid growth of the cybersecurity market).

The IT industry loves a good buzzword or phrase to get everyone hyped, and not least, to get all the marketing teams pumping out loads of material about how this latest revolution is going to change all of our lives for the better.

Over recent years we’ve had, to name but a few...

  • VoIP – the move from traditional telephone systems to IP based ones was a benefit that most could see and we all deployed new telephone systems to take advantage
  • Virtualisation – Getting rid of all the physical servers into a smaller number of Virtual Servers, sharing resources, reducing energy use and flexibility to bring on servers quickly was certainly a benefit
  • BYOD – Means different things to different people but the basic premise that consumer products could connect securely and easily to corporate networks has huge benefits (and of course challenges) for both the user and businesses
  • Next Generation Firewalls – Increasing protection across the whole Ethernet packet so businesses can make network security decisions based on applications has huge benefits for how we control and protect our networks and visualise the traffic flowing through them
  • Cloud – The current favourite and the most overused and over-hyped phrase ever. Although there are benefits in that businesses can off load the responsibility for hosting their services to Software as a Service providers

Flavour of the month

Anyway, back to the latest flavour of the month. The Internet of Things ‘revolution’ is being driven by a number of large networking vendors who claim this is going to be a game changer as it means all (and they literally do mean all) of our household and work electronic devices will have IP connectivity. In a nutshell, this has the potential to connect your internal house network onto the Internet.

This doesn’t mean your washing machine is going to start hosting Minecraft server sessions or rack up hours looking at YouTube videos of cats (we’ll leave that to your kids), but it does mean that there is the possibility to configure your networked devices over the Internet whether you’re at home on your WiFi or on the move.

It also means that stats and performance info can be gleaned from the devices to see how well they are performing and maybe even predict when they may fail…all positive so far!

“The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who haven’t got it” George Bernard Shaw

Not wanting to be a cynic about this, I’m a ‘tech-head’ after all, and, as the above quote suggests, these are merely my observations, but if you consider your life to be overloaded with information now, the addition of bucket loads of details about all your IoT connected devices will do little to remedy the situation.

Of course, there are always two sides to any discussion and proponents of the IoT are keen to stress the benefits of having this degree of hyper-connectivity and some of these are compelling, some less so.

Not so humble fridge

One of the earliest examples of an IoT connected device potentially simplifying our lives was in the humble refrigerator ; the technology can prompt warnings if there is an issue, such as a temperature rise or a door left open. There was also talk of the fridge scanning barcodes as food was removed, then adding it to online supermarket baskets to ensure your stocks were always replenished. In an ideal world this sounds very useful and I’m sure in time this will become something that we can’t live without.

Other areas in which the Internet of Things has potential benefits is in the management of our household heating and lighting. Using network connected devices and systems we could be increasingly flexible in our usage of utilities (see Google Nest systems), firing up the boiler as we leave work rather than scheduling it to come on when we think we may be home. Of course there are some interesting ecological implications here also.

We could also remotely pull our curtains at nightfall and open them again at sunrise, or even begin cooking our evening meal to be ready on our return home. All very useful, futuristic ‘Jetsons-esque’ stuff and sounds positively Utopian, but what happens if it goes wrong?

Let’s be ‘Real’ for a moment

I’m a techie and so I often have a bit more of a real world take on these things. I can definitely see the potential benefits to an Internet of Things, but also understand the many challenges there most certainly will be.

  • Firstly; Software Patches - How many times have you seen a PC, phone or tablet stop working due to applying software patches? I really don’t want my appliances to die because an automated patch has a bug, so I can’t turn on my washing machine, cook my food or have heat and light.
  • Secondly and more worryingly; Security – If we all play nice and just connect to our own devices then all is well… but, as we know, that is not likely to happen! We just have to look at the number of (reported) security intrusions happening at present, there always seems to be one in the news.

By its very nature the IoT works because your appliances have access to the Internet, and that means that the Internet (and all the people on it) potentially can have access to your devices.

Whilst your tech-savvy kids hacking into your systems and getting your fridge to order pizza and fizzy drinks you don’t need or flicking the lights on and off in your house may be annoying, it is trivial when compared with what could happen if the criminal element decides to come snooping.

Cybercrime and the Internet of Things

Opening curtains, disabling security systems and the like could be just the start. The Register had a great piece a number of weeks ago about the danger of your oven being hacked and maybe even gassing you or setting your house on fire, which puts this all into a very scary perspective

Essential planning

Successful implementation of the Internet of Things is going to take a lot of planning to ensure that these systems are stable, reliable, cross platform compatible and, most importantly, secure.

It is also going to mean that simply trusting technology to work is no longer a sustainable approach and a more pro-active stance will need to be taken in the protection our domestic and business networks. For businesses, this shouldn’t be a massive issue, but for consumers who sit behind often-hacked and insecure - so called SOHO - firewalls, the ‘it should all just work’ attitude just won’t fly.

There are definitely interesting times ahead…

What Next?

If you are planning to deploy an enterprise-grade wireless network or are experiencing problems with a existing setup, please feel free to contact Ensign Communications for a chat with our technical team.