The Internet of Things (IoT) is finally upon us with a myriad of machines and sensors set to connect all aspects of our lives. According to Cisco, over 50 billion devices will be talking to each other by 2020. Soon, any conceivable object that could benefit from internet access will become part of the IoT from toothbrushes to televisions to traffic control.
But amid all the excitement, it's easy to overlook the challenges that this unprecedented explosion in connectivity will present. Perhaps the most significant of these issues is security. How will all this information be shared appropriately between so many devices without it falling into the wrong hands?
It's going to be great when a doctor can receive live updates from a patient's pacemaker but not so good if that sensitive data gets intercepted. Your friends and family will certainly find it useful to know your exact location when you're out and about. Unfortunately, so will thieves. With so many smart devices and IP addresses interacting, a whole new world of opportunity for cybercriminals could be about to open up.
When you consider the real danger that the virtual world will pose on the physical, the need for urgent action becomes obvious. Just think of the harm that could come from wireless carjacking, not to mention attacks on connected airplanes.
So how will we be able to put our faith in the information we send and receive when IP addresses go from being managed and carefully ordered to vast and unrestricted? How can we create order from an overwhelming and ever-changing array of new endpoints? Will it ever really be possible to enable the instant access, highly dynamic resource allocation and massive scalability that the IoT demands?
It's likely that a crucial part of the answer is network functions virtualization (NFV). Hyper-connectivity demands a new level of network architecture and services. With NFV, functions can be decoupled from hardware and run on any standard server. It's a strategy that massively increases network agility and gives network operators the tools to deal with the enormous scale of the IoT. It will help them to ensure the integrity of data, preserve end-user privacy and protect devices against cyberthreats.
With such an abundance of endpoints, as well as a huge variety of operating systems and hardware configurations all moving towards mobile and decentralized computing, NFV will be crucial in giving service providers control. Networks will need to be constantly reconfigured as new devices come and go in the blink of an eye. Of course, it's going to be impossible to continue to operate a system where subscribers gain access on a user/password basis. This will need to be replaced by an entirely new set of mechanisms and NFV will be vital in enabling networks to evolve quickly enough to work with these new systems and welcome these new endpoints.
Of course, NFV is also likely to be crucial for other aspects of the IoT such as harnessing the unfathomably large amount of data that all of these devices will generate. For enterprises in many industries, this is where the real benefits of the IoT will come. Instant analysis of big data will be the Holy Grail for many businesses. It's where issues will be resolved, customers will be targeted and lives will be saved. With the agility of NFV, real-time examination of this mountain of new information becomes a realistic possibility.
It's impossible to know exactly all the challenges the IoT will create. Nor can we be sure if NFV or anything else will be enough to help us cope with the sprawling chaos of connectivity. One thing we do know, though, is that we'll need to be proactive about rising to IoT challenges, especially when it comes to security.
We need to solve the puzzle while we still have time. Distributed handling of an enormous amount of devices will be part of the solution. So will creating an architecture that can be remolded as the requirements of the IoT evolve. It looks likely that NFV will be a very important piece of the jigsaw.