IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Is Your Data Center Ready for the Internet of Things? (Contributed)

The potential for IoT to improve residents’ lives is significant, but only if cities have adequate digital infrastructure.

In 2017, the number of IoT devices outnumbered the world’s population for the first time, exceeding 8 billion. While forecasts for the future have varied widely, the current consensus is that we can expect 20-plus billion IoT devices by 2020. We may have as many as 125 billion by 2030, according to IHS Markit, a data analytics research firm.

The last 15 years have seen a marked increase in data use. This puts tremendous strain on existing data centers, many of which are struggling to keep up with demand. In the coming years, that growth won’t slow down — if anything, it’s likely to accelerate. 

What does that kind of growth mean for your municipality’s data? Think of it this way: if your residents planned to increase their water usage by a factor of 15 in the next 12 years, you’d have to update your infrastructure (assuming supply was no concern). A similar increase in connected devices, then, should lead to an infrastructure update of your data centers.

To be clear, not all of the IoT increase will involve city-owned devices or make demands on municipal or state data centers. But as the “smartest” cities have already demonstrated, there are many intriguing IoT applications that could help cities improve operations and service delivery. According to Deloitte’s report on connected government, these will include the following when it comes to IoT: 

  • Sensors on traffic lights and streetlights to monitor traffic flow. Data gathered could guide decisions about future infrastructure updates.
  • Sensors that monitor the efficiency of “green” buildings to determine their effectiveness and look for areas of improvement.
  • Sensors that detect gunshots within 10 feet, which are being used in dozens of jurisdictions, and which could significantly improve police officers’ ability to respond to violent crimes.
  • Smart waste devices (like Bigbelly Solar) that signal when they need to be emptied, thus letting collectors optimize their routes.
  • RFID chips to track government supply chains.
While these applications mark a significant departure from how many government entities are operating today, they represent only the tip of the IoT iceberg. Today, most IoT applications offer ways to optimize current service offerings. But, as the Deloitte report notes, future IoT applications will enable governments to do entirely new things. 

It’s this latter phase where cities will truly become “smart,” as the data they collect is analyzed and used to modify infrastructure and create new services that weren’t previously possible.

How to Prepare for IoT

The potential for IoT to improve residents’ lives is significant, but only if cities have adequate infrastructure. Assuming your city’s IT infrastructure will require upgrades for the age of IoT, here’s a series of five questions you can ask yourself to determine what, exactly, you’ll need.

  1. Which IoT devices, networking technologies, software types, and communication requirements are applicable to your business requirements? Your needs will determine what kinds of bandwidth, power usage, intermittent connectivity, interoperability, and security you’ll need to have. (This publication on ResearchGate outlines what IoT will likely require.)
  2. Can your data center handle more bandwidth? The growing number of IoT devices will demand more in terms of aggregate bandwidth. But for the purposes of data center bandwidth, the type of data protocol of IoT devices (wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 4G, etc.) doesn't matter. All connected devices (body cameras, sensors, GPS on fleet vehicles, etc.) consume bandwidth. Adding more devices exacerbates the problem. In some cases, it’s not the data volume or transmit rate that causes latency problems, but the number of data exchanges between a given IoT device and the data center. According to Nokia Bell Labs, a typical IoT device may need 2,500 data exchanges to handle just 1Mb of data. 
  3. Do you need to consider big data? Sensors and connected devices generate data of varying volumes. Do you need to analyze it in the data center? Can you store it securely if needed to comply with local, state or federal regulations? 
  4. Is edge computing a consideration? Depending on your municipality’s area of activity, real-time data transmission, storage, or analysis may be necessary. Is your infrastructure robust enough to handle data requirements that come with edge computing? The aim is to have two distinct data sets, one for local (to the user) processing and the other for central processing or backup.
  5. How will you handle data storage and backup? What must you keep and what can you delete? Are there any regulations outlining how long you have to keep data and how easily accessible it must be? (For example, Sedgwick County, Kan., must keep police body camera footage for 25 years.) Can you back it up onto tape even though that can take hours or days to access? Even robotic handling systems for large-array hard drives take a few minutes to get data into the system. Will you need a selection process if you can’t keep everything?
Once you have a sense of your current and future capabilities, review your hardware and software inventory. Determine what’s obsolete and identify the expected lifespan of remaining equipment. Then, outline a plan and budget for how you can get to where you need to be to handle expected demand increases.

One thing to keep in mind during this process is that there are low-cost ways to prolong the life of your existing data center equipment. For example, introducing bi-directional fiber-optic links, short-wavelength wave division multiplexing (SWDM), and/or PAM4 optics can significantly increase data center switching and routing bandwidth and can be achieved by upgrading only your optical transceivers, as opposed to costly fiber plant upgrades. 

When budget availability is a concern, this strategy can offer improved performance for a reasonable cost and give IT teams the breathing room they need to plan for bigger upgrades (and budget requests) in the future.

“Smart” Cities Don’t Happen Overnight

No city will move from zero to full IoT adoption overnight, and that’s good news for network engineers. As IoT adoption increases universally, you can gradually ramp up your data center capabilities to keep pace. If you start the upgrade process now, your data centers should be able to handle the capacity demands of IoT by the time your leaders have the ability to implement them — and your residents expect IoT capabilities from their municipal governments.

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.