Zero One: Rise of the IoT Architect
A military helicopter pilot glances down at a console before attempting a landing. Amid noisy, swirling blades and a shifting landscape below, he doesn’t notice nine flickering lights telling him he’s in mortal danger and, moreover, to bail out.
“We showed this [potential problem] to the service people, and they grabbed their hearts,” says Dan Graham, general manager of enterprise systems at Teradata, an analytics, data warehouse and data management company.
In this example of Internet of Things (IoT) technology at work, each of the nine lights designed to protect the helicopter pilot connects to a sensor monitoring a different part of the aircraft. When these sensors detect a helicopter part operating above its safety threshold, they send a signal to the lights to illuminate. Whenever these nine light up in unison, a helicopter cannot land.
Yet time and again, pilots fail to comprehend their situation, which begs the question, who is to blame: man or machine?
Technologists believe they are, and thus they’re working hard trying to improve their innovations. One area where they are focused today: the network edge—and the people who understand how it fits into the IoT world.
It takes a team of talented specialists led by an IoT architect to understand what data is saying and how to avoid dire outcomes. But good luck hiring a trained IoT specialist, especially an IoT architect; they’re as rare as a world-class helicopter pilot.
Because of this, most companies will have to look to the channel to fill out their IoT skills roster.
“I’d estimate 90 percent of companies that need an IoT architect are not going to be able to find one,” Graham says. “The fallout is two-fold: You fail in your project or you find a systems integrator who can you sell you those skills.”
An absence of skills isn’t stopping every company from forging ahead with IoT projects. According to 451 Research, IoT-related spending will grow by 33 percent over the next 12 months. Teradata boasts customers in a range of industries, including Enedis in energy, Volvo Cars in automotive and Maersk Line in shipping.
Surprisingly, not everyone agrees there even is a skills shortage. A 451 Research survey found 54 percent of enterprises say a lack of trained IoT staff isn’t an issue for them, while 46 percent say they’re having difficulty filling IoT-related positions.
One reason for this discrepancy might be what experts refer to as the “sophistication gap,” according to 451 Research. Just about everyone knows IoT security pros ward off threats, but IoT architects, data scientists and domain experts – the ones interpreting, managing and executing on data – make IoT projects worthwhile. The “sophistication gap” helps explain the survey’s other alarming stat: More than 40 percent of current IoT adopters say they are concerned about a lack of return on investment.
Which brings us back to the need for an IoT architect. An IoT architect (not to be confused with IoT systems architect) oversees an entire project and keeps the super-sized IoT team focused. It’s a challenging job that blends three fundamental areas of IoT: computing on the edge, application operation stack in the middle, and data analytics on the back-end. An IoT architect has to build and manage a team consisting of data scientists, security pros and a plethora of specialized experts. For instance, the team may need skills in open source software, IoT data streaming, meta data cataloging, maintenance dispatching, and different IoT data types, just to name a few.
“You not only have to understand data, protocols, sys admin and security but now physical computing, device management and high-end cloud services such as machine learning that feature in the architecture,” says Ian Hughes, an analyst at 451 Research.
While machine learning is still in its infancy, data will increasingly be processed at the edge of a network, nearer to the point of data generation, in order to make data-based decisions quickly.
“Going back to the helicopter, what if you had 50 lights and 20 different combinations where going above the threshold at the same time was dangerous,” Graham says. “There’s no way you could write a program with a bunch of rules to handle all that. That’s when you need machine learning.”
For most companies, an IoT architect is critical for success. Consider a Teradata customer that has a fleet of 3,000 trains equipped with IoT sensors. The trains must be monitored at all times. This scenario cries out for a well-tuned IoT platform and savvy orchestration. IoT architects are in high demand in industries that have ambitious IoT projects, such as transportation, manufacturing, utilities, retail and government.
“When you get into the big multi-national manufacturers like Siemens, Boeing, Union Pacific, they need an IoT architect,” Graham says. “The IoT architect is going to be like the data scientist of the last five years. HR departments are going to be searching for this person because there aren’t that many.”
Since IoT projects vary wildly, the pool of experienced candidates for a particular use case shrinks to the size of a puddle. If a company’s internal bench doesn’t have a requisite IoT skill set or the CTO can’t handle the duties of an IoT architect, then the company may have to look outside to service firms and consultancies.
Channel companies have begun lining up to offer IoT services. This includes top-tier service providers Accenture, IBM and Tata. Smaller solutions integrators with IoT skills include MindTree, EPAM Systems and Luxoft. “SIs have been busting their chops trying to get into this business,” Graham says. “Some have made good headway, others are just posers who say they have the skills but don’t.”
Given the sophistication surrounding the IoT, channel companies will need to make a real commitment to grow their IoT practices. There’s a lot of room to specialize given the various industries emerging as IoT adopters, as well as the variability in design and development of IoT projects within those industries.
Channel companies that can find a niche and then build best practices around it have a bright future. This is especially true as IoT adopters realize they can’t grow skills in-house or recruit new talent. Rather than allow the complexity of IoT architecture to overwhelm them, they’ll likely turn to the channel for help.
Based in Silicon Valley, Tom Kaneshige writes the Zero One blog covering digital transformation, big data, AI, marketing tech and the Internet of Things for line-of-business executives. He is eager to hear how IoT is impacting your business. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.