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Red Hat man maps Internet of Things voyage of discovery

For somebody caught up in the modern technology marketing maelstrom that is the Internet of Things, Red Hat’s IoT and Intelligent Systems chief architect James Kirkland takes a remarkably balanced and patient view.

“There’s the reality of where we’ve been and where we’re going and there’s the hype side,” he says when we speak by phone recently.

“This has been coming together for 10 to 15 years: it’s the intersection of IT and disconnected, embedded systems. A lot of the hype comes around wearables connected to this and that, but in the short run it will have less impact. [In the longer term, the whole sector] will have a huge economic impact on people’s lives.”

Even without prompting, Kirkland, a Florida-born Linux and Unix veteran, says he doesn’t think the IoT will be all upside and gravy. It will be “mostly positive”, he says, but he concedes that security and privacy will remain thorny paths requiring careful navigation and due caution. He doesn’t share the famous view of Scott McNealy that “You have zero privacy … get over it”, but he believes there will be trade-offs.

“As a society we have to decide how much privacy we’re willing to give up; you’re weighing convenience versus privacy. I hope there’s some standardisation [into how data can be kept and what happens to it] but I think it’s going to continue to be messy. I hope customers get smarter about who they do business with, how they share, and even store, data. There should be a lifecycle [governing] when your data goes away.”

Kirkland’s also sceptical about the notion that anonymised data is really that and therefore personal data cannot be compromised.

“Credit card companies could identify you with three or four transactions. We’re all creatures of habit. I eat lunch in the same four places and I shop in this gas station or that store. It’s very easy to build a profile of you.”

He feels that consumers will have to choose an ecosystem they feel comfortable with, whether that belongs ultimately to Apple, Google, Amazon or some other superpower that has multiple capabilities in community, devices, phones, logistics, shopping, content, payment processing and so on.

He likens the development of the IoT to the web where the impact has been much broader than anticipated but where some areas have lagged behind others.  

A mixed bag

“The consumer devices are interesting and will be integrated into systems over time,” Kirkland says. “But back-end business services from logistics to manufacturing, transport, healthcare… to take advantage of the opportunity, all of these have to be integrated. It’s going to take time. Tracking healthcare or trying to predict cities, cars, power grids… when you try to do it from the top down it typically fails, but when you come from the low-hanging fruit then eventually a system will arrive. That’s some of what we saw in the early days of the internet. Eventually these systems will intermingle based on standards that are interoperable and open.”

But the scale of the IoT is such that we will need to deal with not one but many different standards based on spheres of activity, power envelopes, security thresholds and so on. There will be a “golf bag” of standards and protocol she argues, just as HTTP, HTTPS, SSL and so on stand sentry and help maintain order across the web.

Regulators will have a part to play because without them “at some point you’re going to reach a point where you have four companies that have just disintermediated everybody.

“I hope there’ll be more federations of companies doing what they do best. I know it scares the hell out of the GE, Bosch, Siemens and those [industrial technology] guys. It would be very easy for small companies to begin to destroy them and take pieces of their business.”

The data gusher

The stakes are high: way beyond being able to sell hardware or programs. It’s the data and the insights the data provides that will dwarf the rest.

“Software is worth more than the physical system and the data you gather is worth more than the software and the system,” Kirkland says. “The line between wonderful and creepy is thin. If retail stores collected the same data [that internet giants collect] there’d be outrage.”

If it’s likely that the IoT ends up being the mother of all honeypots, attracting cyber-criminals who want to destabilise economies for criminal or political purposes, then having some sort of mechanism or structure to mitigate attacks will be necessary.

Kirkland believes that the answer will again be web-like with multiple layers of redundancy and security so the bringing down of some networks won’t affect the whole too badly and a mutually reinforcing giant communications structure is preserved.

“We know individual networks will go down. It’s horizontal scaling that makes the web so reliable in the end. You may lose a datacentre here but there are four others providing the same service and virtual machines are fungible.”

As the world’s largest open source software company Red Hat has a role to play, Kirkland says, but it won’t attempt to compete with the firms jockeying for early leadership to dominate the sector through platform plays.

“We’re an infrastructure company so were not going to go soup to nuts. There will be analytics tools, messaging, machine learning, the mobile back-end…”

Refreshingly, Kirkland turns down the chance to play Cassandra or predict ‘The Year of the IoT’. He sees progress as taking a zig-zag pattern where, for example, urban planners today are rejecting vendors pushing ‘smart city’ tools, seeing them as modern “snake oil”.

“Retail, transport, logistics are moving much faster than energy which if you’d asked me four or five years ago I wouldn’t have thought,” he says.

If Kirkland comes across as an arch-pragmatist that’s probably because he is one, but he’s enthused by the city of Barcelona in Spain using sensors to know when to collect rubbish bins or the cleaning company at London’s Heathrow Airport that counted toilet visits to know when to clean them. Ultimately though, we agree that we’re taking first steps on a long expedition… but to where?

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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