Saturday, 23 February 2019

Managed sensor deployments

In my cloud computing course at Cornell, students have asked why we are focused on Azure IoT during the current spring offering.  One answer is that I like to orient our MEng students towards technology sectors that are experiencing really dramatic growth, because I want them to have strong job prospects and the skills to secure jobs that will pay above average -- and historically, this has been a good strategy for all of us teaching at this level.

But implicit in my thinking is the assumption that Azure IoT (or the Amazon AWS counterpart) really is headed towards mainstream adoption.  So the question then has to be posed: why should we believe this?  After all, I've been around long enough to remember those crazy videos of people in the Xerox SRC lab or the MIT media lab who set out to capture a digital record of their entire day, and ended up dressed like deep-sea divers, with cameras and microphones all over their bodies and aimed in every possible direction.

That can't possibly be the future of IoT.

What then will be the drivers for this particular IoT surge, and why should we bet that this time, IoT has "crossed the chasm" (a reference to a wonderful 1991 book by Geoffrey Moore)?

I would argue that the first reason centers on a form of risk that creates a powerful pent-up demand.  The risk is simply that in homes, offices and public spaces we are increasingly surrounded by wifi-enabled devices that are capable of tracking us through audio, imaging, motion detectors, swipe card and RFID sensing... the list is long.  So where are these things?  Many are simply in our hands or pockets: any smart phone fits the picture.  But then there are room environmental controls that use small devices to track room or space occupancy -- and because cameras and microphones are so cheap now, naturally are based on those technologies.

I find it kind of ironic that ubiquity would have driven the cost of spying on us down to pennies per device, but there you have it: the vast quantities of inexpensive audio and video chips that have flooded the market due to their use in phones are ending up in just about everything else.  The same goes for simple Linux-based computing platforms: with ARM, there are a tremendous number of devices that have the compute capabilities of an old-style Linux box, and indeed, run Linux or one of the stripped-down real-time capable alternatives.

So we have this unusual picture in which volume has driven costs to the floor, creating a situation in which if you want your room air conditioning "sector controller" to be smart, the easiest thing may be to just include a fully capable small PC that can watch and listen to the space to see if anyone is in it.
But this then becomes a handy option for intrusion, or compromise by the folks who like to create giant bot deployments -- why bother to compromise my PC if they can just target my router, my smart TV set and home entertainment system, my microwave and fridge, my thermostat?  And this doesn't even get at the intentional cases: Alexa, Siri, Cortana and their friends, always waiting to hear their name mentioned, always listening.

It doesn't matter much which kind of space you focus on: whether at home, in the office, walking in the park, all of us are continuously within range of something or other.  And that device is at least in theory capable of hosting intelligent spyware.

To me this single insight is already enough to justify a major bet on Azure IoT and its cousins.  But focusing just on Microsoft, we have already seen the huge success of Office 365: Microsoft dithered but finally figured out that everyone likes their tools, and found a way to integrate them into a complete IT solution for modern enterprises with all sorts of intelligent (social-networking) features to let corporate customers leverage the knowledge inherent to their organization.  There are some obvious glitches (the one that drives me crazy is that the Office 365 version of Skype (Skype for Business) and Slack (Teams) refuse to talk to my desktop telephone, even though my phone uses a standard VOIP technology -- what an annoying oversight).

Anyhow, suddenly we see all of the world's medium to large corporations adopting Office 365 as a complete IT story for internal workplace collaboration, and beyond those annoyances, there really are big wins.  The technology is making Microsoft a winner again.

But every one of those Office 365 customers needs to worry about competitors spying on them, and some also worry about randomware invasions or other forms of disruptive intrusions.  Where would you focus that worry, right now?  I think your attention would be on the smart thermostat, the routers, and the myriad other intelligent devices that pervade the enterprise, and yet are basically insecure.

This is where I see a real opportunity for Azure IoT: the chance to be "Office 365 IoT" by using the security functions of the Azure IoT Hub to wire down all of those devices.  And this is at least the stated plan -- check out Microsoft's official stories.  First, they are trying hard to convince vendors to use a small hardware component called Azure Sphere to secure the device itself -- sensors with a trusted hardware security component (and if you don't love Sphere, Berkeley's David Culler has a bunch of research papers and ideas on sensor security that you could explore.  He used to even have a sensor technology company, although with the pace of turnover in the Bay Area, I'm not sure what became of it.)

A brilliant PhD student of mine, Z Teo, has a company in this space too (free advertising for him!): IronStack.  Z's focus is on securing the corporate network by gaining better control over the routing elements, especially the programmable SDN components.

Then the plan would be to connect every single sensor in the corporate campus to Azure IoT Hub,  every controllable router, every smart microwave oven and self-flushing toilet... and by doing so, to gain  minimal level of control over all these things.  The Azure IoT Hub is basically a massive active database: it has a secure link to the devices, and it wires them down: these sensors cease to be accessible over normal networks, so that once they are connected to the hub, they aren't connected to intruders and spies.  Next, the hub makes sure that the firmware is always properly patched.  Is your fancy printer running the proper software revisions?  With Azure IoT Hub, the answer should be "yes, if it is available on the network"  because if the answer were "no", the other part of the answer would be "but we've taken it offline and dispatched someone to fix it."

I honestly think that taking control over all of these devices is, by itself, the first killer app.  We would be in a much better place if all the smart devices in our environment (and now I mean all: not just the ones in the office, but the CATV things in the street and the smart phones -- the whole game) were actively controlled by security-management infrastructures that can just keep the software patched and avoid random drive-by takeovers.

But once you have this active control over billions (maybe trillions, someday) of devices, it becomes very appealing to make the home and office smart -- and this is the second reason I would bet on Azure IoT right now.  That huge opportunity to innovate is going to be too sexy to pass up, and in the current white-hot technology market, some things are too obvious to fail.  So this won't fail.  If anything, I think we'll head towards some form of auto-configuration where just bringing a smart expresso machine into the building triggers the protocol to securely register it (and control it) from the building management system.

For truth in advertising; I actually have investments in this space -- I own plenty of shares of Microsoft stock, and I'm also an investor and advisor to, a smart homes venture.  That's the one that got me thinking about the "leave no sensitive data behind" model for cloud computing, discussed earlier in January on this blog.  And while I don't happen to have any money in IronStack, I'm very loyal to my past students.  So I've got some biases here!

And yet honestly, I don't think this is a biased blog.  My bets are on this stuff because I truly believe that it has huge positive potential, even if it also represents a short-term risk for organizations that haven't bothered to think it through and are operating with insecure environments.  Worried that someone might be spying on your corporate meetings?  Well, have you thought about what devices might be in the room?  Maybe it is about time to secure them, with something like the Azure IoT Hub.

What of the huge potential?  Well, I have elderly relatives and I like the idea of a friendly little home ghost that can keep an eye on things, making sure they haven't fallen, that the stove was turned off when they left to go shopping, and that the windows are closed and latched at night.  I work in a smart building, and I like the feeling that we're being energy-smart and that the water won't somehow be left running in some unattended sink without the custodian eventually being notified.  These are good ideas.

A smart world with smart homes, smart offices, smart highways (if you've followed my blog, you would know that I have a bit of thing about smart cars... a worry that smart highways can address), smart cities, smart grid.  These are the technologies of the future.  And the Azure IoT Hub strikes me as the ideal way to start.  Which is why, in the spring 2019 offering of cloud computing, we've spent quite so much time on this model.  My slides are online, by the way, if you want to see what all this translates to in practice.