NASA’s CTO tells enterprises how to network IoT

IoT can be an inexpensive test bed for innovation when mixed with the infinite resources of cloud computing

The internet of things combined with cloud computing is the platform for innovation that is used by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and that should be used by enterprises, but it means setting up the right network infrastructure, JPL’s CTO says.

“Number one, build an IoT network that’s separate from the regular network,” says Tom Soderstrom, the JPL CTO. “That’s what we did, and we found that it was amazing.”

That separation is important because it eliminates the cybersecurity threats that lurk on the open internet. When it is needed, secure bridges can be made to reach the internet, he says. “We built code, programs, that talk back and forth between the two.”

The goal for JPL and for enterprises should be to experiment freely with inexpensive consumer IoT devices to discover whether they might have practical business uses, he says.

For example, sensors are a large part of IoT, and each industry has its own type. “Imagine in the shipping industry, each container tells its health, its temperature, its everything,” Soderstrom says.

Another example: “We took a toy [Mars] Rover that you can talk to and drive and you can ask questions about Mars, and it drives around and follows you,” he says. That can be a model for real-world applications.

He says in the mining industry, a similar robot could descend into a mine to look for trapped miners, then reemerge and connect to the internet to disseminate what it found and to receive new instructions.

“Imagine that in the trucking industry…a [driverless] truck driving vast distances across Australia where there’s no internet but it still keeps going. When it gets in range, it connects back up again.”

The low cost of IoT devices combined with the low cost of cloud computing means enterprises can vastly expand the trials they run, and experimental failure holds fewer negative consequences. “Take this new technology and apply it into the enterprise. Fast. High-risk,” he says. “Reward failure, because failure doesn’t cost anything in this case.”

He describes the aggressive experimental teams working on these projects by borrowing a term he picked up from Amazon – the pizza team, meaning a group working on a project together that is small enough to share a pizza.

“So every new technology that comes in, we execute it in the cloud in a one-pizza team or a two-pizza team, small groups that can experiment. If it doesn’t work, that’s OK. We didn’t pay for it, very much. And then we can iterate much, much, much faster. We live in a time of accelerating exponential curves, and this is one way to take advantage of it,” he says.

Blending IoT plus other technologies such as intelligent assistance (think Gooble’s Alexa), cloud computing and new interfaces with computers such as speaking, gesturing, blinking and soon even thinking, it creates a very different problem-solving architecture, he says. A person in an intelligent room could gesture or blink to initiate a query.

“We would say, ‘How are we trending on the budget compared to last year?’ and this piece of software would fire up, execute it, plow through databases on our behalf and do some predictions and speak back to us and say, ‘You are behind,’ or, ‘You are ahead of time.’ And then you can zoom in and it zooms in on a display. So using multiple senses, augmented by the digital assistance, using IoT to tie it all together and cloud computing is where it execute,” he says.

While IoT is important, cloud computing with its unlimited storage and compute resources is the platform that powers the process. “[It’s] where we can experiment with IoT, we can experiment with augmented or virtual reality and all of the other things that are coming. So if a company isn’t already in cloud computing, it’s time to get started.”

(This story is based on an interview conducted by ComputerWorld senior features editor Tracy Mayor and written by Network World Executive Editor Tim Greene)

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