In early August, the National Institute of Standards and Technology held a forum to secure feedback from industry on an internal report released in June that focused on managing risks associated with the internet of things. The genesis behind this report and meeting is for NIST to develop a core baseline for IoT security, which would serve as a good starting point for agency deployments.

IoT involves putting sensors on devices to gather real-time insights for better decision-making and connecting everything from door locks to lights to heating and cooling systems. IoT also can be used to connect sensors to equipment and supplies as a way to improve supply chains, logistics and inventories, or to prevent insider threats by tracking and managing foot traffic of personnel in federal buildings. At its best, this real-time information makes it possible to see patterns, and predict what’s next, such as when a shipment will be delivered, when equipment breaks, or how external factors, like traffic or weather, affect operations.

The real benefits of IoT are the insights the sensors provide for making better operational decisions, improved efficiency and cost savings. Security vulnerabilities, those that NIST is trying to solve with its baseline, are a key component. To counter security threats, IoT platforms should come with a multilayered approach that include: digital certificates, traffic isolation using a virtual LAN, physical security and encryption to secure data-in-transit.

But security is not the only challenge facing federal agency IoT programs.

Addressing IoT challenges

Like all technology, IoT has obstacles in addition to security. These include:

1. A fragmented ecosystem of standards, devices and services. Wi-Fi’s power requirements and range constraints limit its suitability to IoT sensors and tags that are meant to run on batteries or that are meant to relay information over long distances.

2. A lack of interoperability between devices, requiring extensive systems integration.

3. A requirement for a baseline infrastructure in order to deploy the IoT sensors.

These challenges are not insurmountable. A quality IoT platform consolidates a fragmented ecosystem and simplifies the build-out of IoT through the reuse of LAN and WLAN infrastructure, creating a single network to manage all wireless access points. This shortens the deployment duration, reduces costs and allows for added capabilities.

Although IoT is a new capability, in the scope of emerging technologies, it is fairly simple to deploy if looked at in a holistic manner.

IoT access networks

An IoT access network can help agencies address the challenges outlined above by consolidating multiple physical-layer networks into a single converged network. This simplifies IoT endpoint onboarding, establishes uniform security protocols and converges IoT endpoint management and policy-setting into a single platform.

An effective IoT access network has four main components, including:

- IoT-ready access points that enable the connection of both Wi-Fi and non-Wi-Fi based endpoints into a cohesive network

- IoT modules that connect to an IoT-ready access point to enable connectivity between the endpoints

- Network controllers to manage both the LAN and the WLAN using a single, controller-managed system with a single user interface

- IoT controller to perform connectivity, device and security management functions, as well as facilitate endpoint management capabilities

Utilizing an IoT access network provides agencies a modern infrastructure with converged wired and wireless capabilities. This is important not only for immediate-use IoT projects, but to enable the scalability to grow the network as it’s important for agencies to take the long view of what IoT can and will provide to their organization. It will help avoid the issue of adding on components later, resulting in fragmented and inefficient, costlier and less secure networks.

IoT is here for the federal government—and will grow exponentially as 5G devices come on the market. There are believed to be about 25 billion IoT devices operating today, and that’s expected to grow to 75 billion by 2025, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. That is significant. But, given all the positive use cases for IoT, there are good reasons for this growth. And, with the right infrastructure and architecture, an IoT network can provide these positive benefits for years to come.

The most critical piece—and the starting point—for fielding these IoT capabilities is a strong infrastructure that includes an effective IoT access network.

Brian Wright is the director of systems engineering for federal at CommScope, a North Carolina based communications company.

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