The Internet of Things provides an opportunity for the desktop admin

The desktop admin is just getting a grip on mobile and cloud tech and now microcontroller devices bring the Internet of Things into enterprises.

In the past several years, the desktop admin has taken on responsibility for managing everything from the beige-box PC and laptops to all manner of bring your own device assets -- including hardware, software and data.

Just over the horizon, the Internet of Things (IoT) looms large for the enterprise. These tiny networked sensors, little black boxes and Wi-Fi-connected nano-systems will interact with many corporate systems as they ingest and generate mountains of business data for analysis and decision making. Gartner recently estimated that the number of IoT devices will grow from 0.9 billion in 2009 to 26 billion by 2020.

Desktop managers are in a great position to grab the reins of this new herd of human-less physical computing assets, because of their unique combination of expert networking, security, systems administration and troubleshooting skills. Enterprise systems, including smartphones, will have to deal with the devices both locally (via Bluetooth, standalone access points and so on) and in the cloud.

You should care because it's a golden opportunity to catch the IoT wave early and actually steer how the new technology is integrated and managed in your company and industry. Let's look at what you can do to get started.

The Internet of Things is still very new

The tremendous lack of standards, tools and processes to deal with the arrival of little Internet-connected devices is stark. The industry simply hasn't matured enough to address the operational part and that gives IT admins a lot of leverage to build new processes.

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Also, great minds in the sector are still struggling to fit the IoT to business models that actually provide value to the customer while still generating a healthy return on investment. In other words, it's a brand-new, mostly untested industry.

Moreover, managing a vast array of connected devices certainly hasn't made it into the tech mainstream yet. Maybe we'll see the term "big devices" soon.

People are having trouble getting their heads around why anyone would ever need to "manage" a bunch of low-power, relatively simple, Internet-connected physical computing devices. How about security or device inventory control? Somebody also has to keep track of where things are when they need maintenance or when a small battery dies, right?

Desktop, network and other enterprise IT admins are in a prime position to learn about the technology and to design management processes. Remember how you developed tools, techniques and processes to keep all those early laptops humming happily along? We're on a similar point on the timeline with the IoT.

How the desktop admin can get ready

A good place to start is to dip a toe into the microcontroller world and get your hands dirty with one or two projects of your own. The Arduino Yun module is affordable, has a huge user community and is a great way to jump into learning the technology.

The Yun is a small, embedded Linux microprocessor system bolted onto the back of an Arduino microcontroller, with on-board Wi-Fi and wired Ethernet. The $75, roughly 2-by-3-in. board can act as a Wi-Fi client or its own self-contained wireless access point.

It's a widely available open source developer board intended to provide a wireless bridge between the physical computing world and networked devices and services. You might hook up door switches or temperature sensors to its inputs and shoot the resultant data up to a server or the cloud for processing or analysis.

In addition to the Yun board, you'll probably need a breadboard, some LEDs, a few resistors and a 5-volt wall wart to conduct some basic experiments. You can also use Secure Shell, execute from the command line, fiddle around with security settings and explore how these IoT connections work on a real network.

Adafruit, SparkFun and the Maker Shed can all source the Yun and external components. The Arduino site is a wealth of information on the Yun.

In addition, Microsoft has launched a competency including 15 exams for the IoT. You may also want to dabble with building IoT applications. Or, you might attend a few conferences. O'Reilly's SolidCon in San Francisco promises to be an inspiring venue to not only talk about IoT trends, but also to see cool demonstrations of the technology.

GigaOM's Stucture Connect is a similar event in October that showcases its take on what the future holds when connecting the physical world to computers and networks. This event will likely concentrate on business and organizational aspects a little more than hardware and software.

The IoT is marching relentlessly into all aspects of modern society, including the enterprise. Desktop managers will certainly be able to heavily influence how IoT is integrated and secured -- if they are proactive now.

You can literally write the book for your organization on how IoT brought in and operated, once you understand the hows and whys of the technology. I think a modest investment of time and effort will ensure your relevance as the IoT goes mainstream.

Rob Reilly is an independent consultant, writer and speaker serving clients in the private sector, small business and tech media. His analytical and "how-to" articles cover Linux and open source, the IoT, DIY and the Maker Movement and technology career development. He can be reached at robreilly@earthlink.net.

This was first published in March 2014

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