VMware's view on IoT and IT/OT convergence

While there hasn't been any horizontal IoT use cases in EUC, IoT is alive and well in enterprise Operational Technology departments, and VMware thinks they'll lean more on IT as time goes by.

As a maker-type in my spare time, IoT is a fun hobby, but having a reason to make it part of my job would be fantastic. When Citrix bought Octoblu, we launched into a fruitless search to find a horizontal, EUC-focused use case for IoT that would give us a reason to care a little bit more about it from a professional perspective. So far, we haven't had any luck, and after meeting with VMware's Pulse IoT Product Marketer Avanti Kenjalkar, I think I can explain why.

If you’re not familiar with Pulse IoT, it’s a separate unit within VMware, separate from AirWatch, even. Pulse IoT is a management platform for IoT infrastructures that borrows some of its approach from AirWatch, but is intended specifically for the purpose of managing three-tier IoT environments that are used in various enterprises today. The three tiers consist of the “things,” a gateway that those things connect to (which supports various connection types...not just WiFi or Ethernet), and the backend systems that consume the data.

From the technical side, IoT isn't just about sensors that notice when people walk into a room,  things you wear on your arm that sense when you make a fist, turning on lights with a tweet. Those are the nerd-pron examples that we—the uninitiated—get to see, but the scope is so much larger and more complicated.

The reason this hasn't graced IT yet is because IoT isn't useful to IT. In fact, it's almost entirely limited to another segment of business technology: Operational Technology, or OT. If you're not familiar with OT, it's the segment of technology that encompasses things like industrial machines and scientific equipment. Think robotic welders, oil and gas rigs, airplanes, and the like. These things require complex infrastructures for power and communications just like IT systems, but odds are they have a separate group of people to manage them than your typical IT admin.

Because of this, IoT is more or less relegated to OT departments, a disappointing fact for EUC people when you also consider that there are no horizontal use cases that apply across all organizations. VMware, however, thinks that might change as more and more "things" are implemented in the world. A single company could have hundreds of thousands or millions of "things" (things aren't just sensors, but could be controllers, relays, informational displays, and so on), each of which has some level of intelligence and has to make some sort of connection to backend systems that collect, analyze, and act on the data.

In that world, where OT has to go from "managing a welding robot" to "managing a welding robot with multiple sensors, each with their own firmware, that connect to the gateway via Bluetooth or WiFi, which then connects to a back end system." IT concepts of device management can help out. In fact, VMware believes that IT will take on the responsibility of updating, managing, and monitoring these IoT sensors. Their rationale is that OT is not prepared to handle this level of administration, so while they'll remain in charge of choosing devices and interpreting the information, IT will oversee the rest.

This trend, called IT/OT Convergence, isn't new. Gartner mentioned it as far back as 2011, and we've understood there is some overlap between the two for much longer. Even that PC hooked up to the centrifuge at your local hospital could qualify, but to a less complex degree. You have to manage the PC, but other people take care of the device. Based on that, I can see where VMware is coming from, but today we're not just talking about a single PC connected to a single machine. We're talking about many "things" connected to a machine, plus a controller that gathers that data, and the infrastructure to connect the "things" to the controller, then on to the backend systems.

I'm not sure that IT has the resources to cover this explosion of devices and infrastructure that may be best suited for OT, and I'm not sure that OT would cede control over to the IT side of the house. While I don't disagree with IT/OT convergence, I think it's likely that OT will bring on more IT-like resources. Either way the result is the same—IT and OT working together to manage the insane number of devices that are about to hit our production lines.

There may be some elements of EUC-like device management that OT-managed equipment can draw from, but odds are we'll never get that lab full of widgets that we've been dreaming about. At least within the confines of VMware’s vision, I think IoT is always going to remain on the other side of the organization as viewed by EUC people. There may be some holes poked here and there that let us get our hands dirty from time to time, but for the most part it's something we'll have to view from afar.

Keep in mind, though, that this my reaction to VMware’s view. Personally, I think it explains why we haven’t seen horizontal IoT use cases, both other vendors may have a different opinion. We’ll have more conversations with those other vendors and follow up soon.