Internet of Things? Not on MY Network!

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We keep hearing about this latest hyped idea called the Internet of Things (IoT). As someone who is responsible for a network at your company, [insert your employer here], you may be asking yourself, ‘Why do I care?’ It is not like you are providing any IoT devices to your employees for their job and you certainly do not run any applications that service or are serviced by IoT objects.

But there is a significant impact on what all these IoT devices do on your network because your employees are certainly using these items.  How many devices?  Cisco estimates that there will be 50 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2020. This will range from the personal fitness monitor to the networked thermostat all the way to the Internet connected crock pot.  It seems that no object is off limits.

Capillary networking is to blame

Part of the problem with IoT is that even though we predict that there will be a lot of devices on the Internet, most of them will have no direct connectivity.  They will be relying on other devices that have access to the Internet.  This is capillary networking and the concept was introduced in 2012.  This could be the Wi-Fi router in the home that is connected to a broadband connection.  In many other cases, the device connecting to the internet is the consumer’s smartphone. 

The smartphone will use the cellular data connection to create a connection to the Internet.  Through the phone, the consumer’s fitness tracker can deliver updates to the cloud.  The person can receive updates about the pot roast that has been slow cooking the past 6 hours.  The home security system can send a notification with the latest video of a potential intruder that happens to be the neighbor’s cat once again.

Parasitic invasion

The consumer has probably configured their smartphone to connect to the corporate Wi-Fi signal to save money on their monthly data consumption.  This means that all these connections and data traffic are now passing through your network.  These IoT devices have essentially become parasites via capillary networking and consuming your enterprise network resources.  This creates three potential problems for you.

First, there is the issue of bandwidth.  Most of the IoT devices do not send much data, but some send a lot.  If someone is fixated on monitoring their home security system in real-time, as some vendors suggest, the streaming video can consume a significant portion of your corporate bandwidth.

Second, there is the issue of security.  Of course, when we discuss IoT, we need to mention security.  But in this instance, we are talking about the security of your corporate network.  It is well known that many of these IoT devices are vulnerable to hacks and compromises and the number of vulnerabilities keep increasing.  If a device is compromised and is accessing your network through capillary networking, what does that say about the security state of your network?

Finally, we need to talk about harmonics.  I have written about the harmonics in IoT communications in the past.  The cadence of the communications that affect the service providers will affect your enterprise network as well.  If you have X employees using fitness trackers and their devices sync to the cloud every 15 minutes, there is the potential for your network to see a flood of connections every 15 minutes.  At this point, it is not the bandwidth that is of concern, since the amount of data sent is small.  The primary issue is that the number of new connections per second (cps) and concurrent connections will surge at each of these intervals.  Many network devices, especially stateful ones like firewalls have cps and concurrent connection limitations.

Antidote?

The solution is not to cleanse your network of any capillary networking capabilities, but to be more vigilant and monitor your network.  Look for two factors as to how IoT can impact your network.  First, monitor your network and application service level agreements (SLA).  Look for deviations that could be related to the potential problems discussed.  Second, be vigilant about potential security threats and vectors.  That IoT device which has access to your network could become the latest method for the malicious hackers to access your sensitive data.

Bottom line, do not ignore the hype of IoT.  There may or may not be 50 billion devices in 5 years.  It is hard to predict how intrusive and embedded the IoT will become.  In the meantime, take some precautionary steps to monitor how this will impact networks everywhere.

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