Beeps, blips and IT: Making sense of sensor data

As sensors proliferate in every industry, companies wrestle to turn the fire hose of real-time data into usable business intelligence.

It's no exaggeration to say the '00s have been the decade when the electronic sensor left the factory floor and went, well, everywhere.

Manufacturers and retailers use RFID tags to track inventory. Food and pharmaceutical companies use temperature and humidity sensors during transportation and in warehouses. Government and civil engineering firms use wireless sensors to monitor public infrastructure like bridges and dams for structural integrity. And electric utilities and corporate consumers are using sensor technology to help them manage, distribute and use power more cost effectively.

In the face of such a rapid-fire proliferation of beeps and buzzes, technology executives are wondering how they can tie sensor data into the IT network, says Jeff Platon, vice president of marketing for emerging vertical markets at Cisco Systems.

Previously, most sensors were built into machines and transmitted information to closed systems using proprietary communications protocols. But over the past five years, new technologies have given rise to a new generation of sensors that are mobile and networkable, enabling their use in a much wider variety of applications.

As sensors spread, vendors and corporate IT managers alike are exploring ways to integrate information from such devices into their overall IT networks, Platon says. The goal? To use sensors not just for tracking, counting or otherwise monitoring things, but to combine and analyze sensor data with other business indicators to identify long-term trends and gain competitive insight.

A single corporation may have a plant manager overseeing automation and control sensors, a facilities manager monitoring building-automation sensors, and a distribution manager with supply-chain sensors, Platon says. The natural question becomes, why not merge all this information on the central network and see it all together in a business context?

Answer: because it's too complicated -- for right now, at least. There are both technical and cultural barriers to integration, says Platon.

First, the sensor industry has spawned a rat's nest of protocols. In the manufacturing arena alone, there are 250 different proprietary protocols. Even those wireless sensor networks that use the IP protocol often have to use different nonstandard versions because of the sensors' low power levels and processing capability, Platon notes.

Cisco and sensor network vendor Arch Rock co-chair an Internet Engineering Task Force working group to develop a standard for IP-based routing techniques over these wireless sensor networks, but the process could take years, Platon says. Perhaps even more significant, there is a culture gap in most corporations between the plant or supply-chain manager who typically controls sensor networks and the CIO who runs enterprise IT, says Platon.

Operations and facilities staff focus on watching sensor networks for alerts and alarms and responding quickly to solve immediate, typically physical problems -- such as a malfunctioning refrigeration unit, explains Chet Namboodri, Cisco's global director of manufacturing industry solutions, who calls such decision-makers the "concrete" side of operations.

IT -- the "carpet" side of the company -- is more oriented toward processing and analyzing information in a standardized way over time. "The cultural differences are the biggest challenge in terms of converging the networks and the capabilities of the concrete side and the carpeted side" of a company, says Namboodri.

And yet a few companies with particularly pressing needs are starting to investigate the possibility of joining concrete with carpet. The two projects profiled below -- both driven by the rising costs and short supplies of energy -- represent two different approaches to linking sensors to the overall IT network, but the long-term goal of these projects is the same: to integrate that data into the process of managing the business in order to increase efficiency and cut costs.

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