In addition to contributing to the exponential increase in data, security concerns, and strain on enterprise networks, the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) is creating demand for upgraded wireless sensor nodes in the enterprise. And as IoT becomes more prevalent in the enterprise, the ease with which we as IT professionals can deploy and create sensor networks increases in tandem.
Because IoT provides the opportunity to implement less expensive, more accurate smart devices or sensors, many organizations want to roll out plans to upgrade. Still, the road to these upgrades and improvements is not simply plug and play; rather, organizations should follow the same protocol as they would for any other IT plan, confirming that security as well as monitoring and management tools are active and effective, both in building and managing these networks.
Defining wireless sensor networks
Before delving into how to build or manage these networks, let’s define them for the purposes of this article: wireless sensor networks are wireless networks with spatially distributed, autonomous sensors designed to monitor physical or environmental conditions such as sound, temperature, or humidity. These sensors pass their data through the network to a main repository, where IT professionals can gather the data. They are best suited to enterprises because of the need to monitor data center conditions.
For example, if an application is experiencing availability issues, it could be due to higher-than-acceptable temperatures in the data center. With sensory nodes sending data across the network to the repository, we can use the information to course correct and resolve the performance problem. Today, wireless sensor networks are bi-directional, meaning we can gather and manipulate the data to gain a more thorough understanding of the environment.
In the enterprise, sensor nodes are an everyday occurrence. But while connected devices are able to send gathered data across the network, you may not be fully aware of everything the device is capturing, which raises questions about the effectiveness of your organization’s monitoring and management software, particularly wireless monitoring and alerting. These alerts should paint a picture of devices’ effects and how the information is being used in the enterprise. Additionally, even if a local area network (LAN) is in use—as opposed to wide area network (WAN)—you should be aware of the ports that have the potential for connected devices, so that they can quickly be expanded or deployed according to your needs.
To leverage wireless sensor networks, you must become comfortable allowing a non-authenticated network that enables these new technologies to be integrated, while remaining segmented enough to not enable network penetration or cross lines with other networks. This not only helps with security, but allows network administrators to gain an understanding of how these devices actually behave on our networks. As many organizations are still unsure of how the devices are being used, a non-authenticated and segmented network is key to maintaining security throughout the organization.
What are the implementation challenges?
One of the top challenges associated with wireless sensor networks is tied to monitoring. Often, IT professionals who understand the importance of monitoring will implement a tool at the same time as the deployment of sensor nodes; unfortunately, this has the effect of throwing your baseline activity off balance. For example, if sensor nodes are deployed in dangerous environments (i.e., environments with energy supply or electrical issues), then the monitoring baseline will not be accurate. To avoid this issue, first monitor the wireless network and the environment as a whole to create a baseline of activity, and then deploy the sensors to identify the resulting changes and paint a true portrait of activity.
Because the nature of IoT is conducive to plug-and-play devices or sensors, it’s important to keep that desire at bay by watching monthly activity trends specific to bandwidth, as you can more accurately plan for the future and more cost effectively allocate resources and spend. In fact, the second challenge associated with implementation is the added cost of sensor nodes on the network. Because organizations are not always tracking bandwidth being used through testing and monitoring sensor usage, it’s important to budget for the increase in network activity.
Finally, as anyone living and working in 2017 can attest, network devices, systems, wireless devices, and more are vulnerable to attack, because they are connected to the internet and data is moving across the network. Unfortunately, security is very fluid, ever changing, and demands constant attention, and IT professionals who already wear several hats are often not adequately equipped to successfully defend their business from attacks. Similarly, those IT professionals who have traditionally worked in silos of expertise often do not have enough knowledge about the interconnected nature of their infrastructure to proactively identify vulnerabilities. With this in mind, and the looming threat of a data breach in the future, you should invest in security information and event (SIEM) and compliance software that will act as a safety net and alert you when there is an issue to be addressed.
Best practices for management
Before adding sensor nodes onto your network, it’s imperative to create a plan that allows you to have clear visibility into your network at any point in time, relying on your monitoring system to provide data on your wireless access points and as the signal levels within your facilities. This tool should ideally include an alert function when new devices appear, so you are constantly aware of anything new being introduced on the network. In addition, you should follow the below steps to help ensure a smooth implementation process for sensors:
Set trackable metrics. You should know specifically what you need from sensor devices in order to get the most out of them. For example, monitoring temperatures for an office space for employees is one thing, but monitoring the temperature for an ice cream warehouse is a different story entirely. At the end of the day, having data just to have it is a waste of time, storage, and IT resources. Too much monitoring results in noise, and the actual metrics—at least the ones that provide actionable insights—can get lost.
Find a network management tool and thoroughly evaluate. When evaluating network management tools, determine what you need to know or want to know in order to prevent certain scenarios from happening or to ensure you have an actionable set of insights. Conduct side-by-side evaluations to look for functions such as forecasting scalability of the devices, measuring bandwidth usage, showcasing the gathered information in one centralized location, alerting for thresholds, and enabling the ability to cross into execution based on information these devices are sending out. All of these functions can be leveraged to create an efficient, valuable, and cost-effective sensor network. For example, a sensor node on temperature or humidity might exceed expectations and a sufficient network monitoring management software can both alert you and simultaneously create a ticket to the maintenance team to address, which streamlines operations and enabling a quicker time to resolution.
Establish a baseline. Having a fundamental understanding of what typical performance looks like for these pieces of infrastructure will normalize the security expertise of a team by providing a reference point to check when something seems wrong. The security team can then execute on a pre-determined response plan in order to quickly and effectively remediate. While these are often overlooked, they’re incredibly important, and with sensor nodes you can see problems beforehand and quell them before they turn into a bigger security issue.
IT professionals who can effectively manage sensor nodes in their data centers or in other environments to monitor temperature, humidity, sound, or other functions are well on their way to deriving valuable insights and positive business impacts on behalf of their organizations. As is always the best approach, craft a plan of attack—what you want to achieve or learn from devices in your environment—before building the wireless sensor network with an understanding of how IoT devices will affect your organization, and then implement the proper tools to help you manage and succeed.