Should IT Reinvent Technical Support for IoT?

IT support historically focused on issue resolution and answering user questions. This support came from a central IT help desk, or through a software fix issued by the applications or network group, or perhaps from an onsite visit from an IT technician.

This service model still holds true for most IT departments, only now the growth of IoT and edge computing is making this mode of service less sustainable.

Present support and service challenges that IT faces are: how to keep up with securing the myriad of edge and IoT devices that user citizen developers bring through the door; how to service new IT that users install on their own; how to service more and more IT that is deployed at the edge and away from the central data center; and how to train users in basic security skills so security breaches and the need to mitigate them can be avoided.

The Foibles of IoT

Edge IT deployments are characterized by a plurality of IoT devices that are deployed away from the data center. These IoT devices can be smart phones, laptops, sensors, RF readers, robots, drones, MRI/X-ray equipment, and even autonomous trucks and forklifts.

When something goes wrong, IT gets called.

What can go wrong?

There are two “high maintenance” areas for IoT devices. Both relate to the fact that many IoT device producers are startup companies that focus on rapid times to market. Consequently, the companies limit the work they do to ensure devices sold are ruggedized for their intended applications. Additionally, many IoT devices on the market don’t interoperate well with other IT, nor are they well secured against threats.

These devices frequently arrive with bugs, and many use operating systems that are not well known or supported. When users go out on their own to purchase IoT, without checking for device compatibility, reliability, security, vendor support. etc., these shortcomings of vendors and products develop into an internal enterprise problem that IT is asked to address.

Above all, security is a concern.

By 2023, Statista estimates there will be 29 billion IoT devices worldwide.

For IT, this massive IoT security attack surface gets more complicated, because most IoT devices come into the enterprise with “wide open” security that is characterized by minimal (or no) security presets. This means that IT must hand-configure IoT devices upon arrival, so device security matches the security standards of the enterprise.

Unfortunately, IT techs can forget to configure IoT devices. In other cases, users purchase and just start using these devices on their own, without notifying IT.

How Can IT Adjust its Support Strategy for IoT?

A first step is to advocate for IoT technology purchasing standards and to gain the support of upper management.

The goal should be for the company to not purchase any IoT technology that fails to meet the company’s security, reliability, and interoperability standards, which IT must define.  None of this can happen, of course, unless upper management supports it, so educating upper management on the risks of non-compliant IoT, a job likely to fall to the CIO, is the first thing that should be done.

Next, IT should create a “no exceptions” policy for IoT deployment that is rigorously followed by IT personnel. This policy will make it a corporate security requirement to set all IoT equipment to enterprise security standards before any IoT gets deployed.

Finally, IT needs a way to stretch its support and service capabilities at the edge without hiring more support personnel, since budgets are tight. If something goes wrong at your manufacturing plant in Detroit while technical issues arise at your San Diego, Atlanta, and Singapore facilities, it will be a challenge to resolve all issues simultaneously with equal force.

To tackle the challenge, some IT departments are considering localized IT support at the edge, whether it is from an outsourced IT provider or from super users at the site. These supplementary IT support personnel can assist with level one issues such as user sign-ons, learning how to operate new systems, restoring a spreadsheet, monitoring a network, etc. If the issue is more complex, it can be escalated to IT, which can then step in with remote software support tools or onsite visits.

Final Remarks

As more IT moves to the edge, IT support and service must do the same.

The range of IT service and support can be increased by using software-based tools that can remotely fix edge issues; and by partnering with outside edge service providers and/or in-house super users in the resolution of edge IT issues.

IT can also proactively preclude trouble by creating, teaching, and following policies that ensure that IoT technology is properly evaluated and vetted before purchase, and that the technology is appropriately secured before it is installed.

In the end, we know that IoT is an edge enabler and game changer — and that to effectively enable IoT, IT must extend its service and support capabilities. This means creating, advocating for and enacting a new set of IT policies that address the technical and security particularities of IoT.

I recently presented on this topic and one of the quotations that I cited was written over 2,500 years ago in his book, “The Art of War”, Sun Tzu wrote, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

That is still the goal today for IT service and support: to subdue issues before they can ever arise because of proactive IoT usage policies that are implemented and enforced that can reduce trouble calls; and to extend the reach of IT service and support by teaming with super users at the edge who can address IT issues before they grow into major problems.

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