Fast Packet

Internet of Things marks dawn of smart objects, more network pressures

For network engineers, the Internet of Things is a slowly rising tide that will eventually make your bring your own device accommodation strategy seem quaint. We joke that one day our management will try to put the coffeemaker on the network -- just as it has with everything else. But the Internet of Things is inevitable, and it is nothing short of a new universal entitlement: Everything you touch may access the Internet. Forget smart devices, these are smart objects, chatty on the wire and quick to deliver disappointing user experiences if the network interferes with their operation. Nontraditional network devices will outnumber today's gear, using protocols and bandwidth in unexpected ways. And guess who gets to sort everything out? Network engineers.

IPv6 smoke detector just one of the gadgets we'll be seeing

Configuring thermostats to connect to the Internet makes sense. They regulate our largest utility expenditure, and quick and ready control of HVAC has obvious ROI. The new Nest Protect smoke detector, however, is something different. It's replacing an important but dumb device, and communication with its collocated brethren is an obvious feature advantage. But unlike other similar interconnected detectors, Nest isn't using X10, ZigBee or a proprietary technology. Instead, each detector will have an IP address and a WAN link. Soon, the spacious /24 subnet at home won't cut it. Some products, meantime, create private IPv6 WANs, which in turn connect to IPv4 networks via proprietary controllers, but that's going to change. The Internet of Things will run on IPv6.

If an Internet-connected toaster is reluctant to warm a bagel while it slowly swaps 10K Simple Object Access Protocol messages with Amazon, it's not necessarily your fault.

At the office, it won't just be a swarm of HVAC, lighting and security controls or intelligent shop-floor tools that will expect Internet access. Delivery trucks, trailers, shipping containers, smart pallets with onboard GPS, inventory management routing, sort and delivery elements, scanners, and sensors of every variety are proliferating. IPv4 subnet exhaustion in the enterprise will become more challenging than ever before.

Your cloud toaster is killing my WAN

Perhaps the biggest challenge for network engineers is that all of these connected doohickeys share one major difference from the devices that came before them -- they're now connected to the cloud. Network devices intelligent enough to operate rich interfaces autonomously and admin time to maintain firewall holes can be expensive. Smart grains of sand are affordable because they offload complex functionality to remote systems and bypass error-prone firewall configurations in one step by becoming just another HTTP client on the Internet.

But because they're not coordinating with a controller on the LAN, each cloud-connected device incurs a full conversation load, burdening the WAN and every element in your network, twice. The full transmission path including wireless LAN, distribution, core, firewalls and gateways are all affected. And worse, with many of these devices preferring IPv6, you'll have more pressure than ever to dual-stack all of those components.

What's more, many "Internet Things" multiply this challenge by not being great netizens to begin with. In the case of Nest, if you've put Wireshark on it, you'll see it's pretty verbose. That's not an issue on the LAN, but it's a problem that can quickly multiply over WAN links.

Finally, humans expect new smart objects to have the same responsiveness of the autonomous dumb objects they replaced. If an Internet-connected toaster is reluctant to warm a bagel while it slowly swaps 10K Simple Object Access Protocol messages with Amazon, it's not necessarily your fault. But your users may assume it's your network. Tame Internet Things with geek skills

First and foremost, keep a close eye on your traffic. True application firewalls can untangle the most sneaky device conversation, get IP address management under control and get gear ready for IPv6. They can also classify and segment your device traffic; implement effective Quality of Service to ensure that critical business traffic has headroom; and of course, monitor flow, monitor flow and monitor flow.

Second, price and marketing are big factors in this new class of network device. There are almost as many vendors as products, and in general, most are small companies with even smaller R&D teams. Many respond well to experienced engineers who offer feedback framed to make their products better. When you see monster HTTP posts from your new factory-floor smart wall clocks, get in touch with the manufacturer and discuss your concerns.

The tide of smart devices is rising, but with a little preparation, you'll be ready for it.

About the author:
Patrick Hubbard is a head geek and senior technical product marketing manager at SolarWinds. With 20 years of technical expertise and IT customer perspective, his networking management experience includes work with campus, data center, storage networks, VoIP and virtualization, with a focus on application and service delivery in both Fortune 500 companies and startups in high tech, transportation, financial services and telecom industries. He can be reached at Patrick.Hubbard@solarwinds.com.

This was first published in November 2013

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