Staying secure? IoT for field service
Blog|by Mary Branscombe|12 November 2018
As the Internet of Things becomes more pervasive, going into embedded devices like air conditioning and microwave ovens that haven’t been connected before, it becomes increasingly important to secure and service IoT devices, and to handle those IoT devices through the same customer support and field service management you use for the rest of your business.
Microsoft offers a range of IoT services, including the newly launched Azure IoT Central – a SaaS platform with per device pricing for provisioning and customising standard IoT solutions using device templates that you can put into production straight away and start streaming data from.
You can connect that data to business systems using Microsoft Flow, which has connectors for hundreds of different services. You can also create Power BI dashboards using IoT Central data. That lets you put together connected field service systems that you can use to create online tools to help users detect and troubleshoot issues remotely, so you don’t have to send a technician out for simple fixes.
If you’re already using Azure and you want to get more from your connected devices, Dynamics 365 for Field Service now integrates with IoT Central, with alerts and commands going to and from devices so you can be more proactive about getting information and managing devices or even start moving to predictive analytics, fixing problems before your customers notice them and call to complain – or even before they happen.
A device that can tell you when it needs to be cleaned, emptied or repaired saves you sending staff out on a fixed schedule, when the device might or might not need attention. Dynamics can automate scheduling for technicians to go out to the devices that do need working on, based on who has the right skills, the right inventory of parts on their truck and where they are, so you can get more things fixed the first time. It even includes turn by turn directions, optimised for commercial vehicles, to where the devices are. A portal where customers can schedule their own appointments and see how far away the technician is will also improve customer satisfaction.
You will be able to tie that in with the new AI-powered Dynamics 365 applications coming later this year, like Dynamics 365 AI for Customer Service, which gives you a virtual agent for customer service without needing to get consultants in to help you build it.
If customer support calls start going up for a particular product or service, Customer Service Insights will suggest creating a virtual agent to help with that topic. The tools are simple enough for customer service managers to put together the building blocks for the agent like trigger phrases and the answers to give customers when they ask those questions. You can also use call logs to train the virtual agents, to help them pick up the specific language your customers use.
If you’re putting together more of a custom IoT system, Azure IoT Hub now works with Android and Android Things devices; using the IoT Hub SDKs, to give you a wider choice of IoT devices. It can also handle millions of devices, including moving them from one IoT solution to another.
If what you need to build is a digital model of your physical environment, whether that’s individual equipment or the whole workflow of a physical process, the new Azure Digital Twins platform (currently in public preview) lets you use IoT devices and sensors to monitor that physical system in real time.
Existing digital twin systems often concentrate on the physical devices like manufacturing machinery. IoT services, including Azure IoT Hub have concentrated on connectivity, device management and provisioning at scale. They help you manage energy usage and troubleshoot problems remotely.
Those are important, but to really model and understand a physical process you need to look at how devices and sensors interoperate in a physical space and how the whole system functions from end to end, including the people and the workflow involved in the process. The usual first step is adding a sensor fabric to physical devices but it can be more helpful to model the space and create a graph of the interactions between people, places and things so you know what sensors you need where and what data they will give you.
Take a meeting room; you don’t only care about the projector and the air conditioning and the light bulbs. You care about the meetings that happen there and the people who are in the room, and how easily they can use the facilities there. Once you think about the people and the space, you can use motion sensors and the room booking calendar together to tell whether a room is occupied or not as well as whether it was reserved – so you might want to have the air conditioning turn on automatically five minutes before the meeting is due to start.
You can also treat different kinds of rooms differently; for example, you might not want to monitor the motion sensors in a bathroom in the same way as you do in a meeting room.
Securing connected things
There’s a common joke that the S in IoT stands for security, but businesses can’t afford to leave connected devices unprotected or insecure. Not only is that a business threat, but devices that can be infected with malware or taken offline by attackers will cost you money in customer satisfaction and more support and service calls.
Microsoft’s Azure Sphere microcontroller is now available in a public preview with development kits; that means if you’re building your own IoT devices (or buying custom devices built by a partner), they can use certified, secure microcontrollers with a custom OS that gets updated through the same proven mechanisms as Windows Update. Azure Security Center is adding a service to manage IoT deployments, from setting your security model for devices, gateways, connected cloud services and admins, to monitoring and remediating threats. If you’re already using the Azure Security Center to manage the security models for other Azure services, this lets you manage IoT devices the same way rather than as a separate system, using tools you’re already familiar with.
Have an obligation-free conversation about Azure and IoT with the Grey Matter Azure team: +44 (0)1364 654100.
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Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things in between.
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