Cisco tries new collaboration, compliance tools for diverse work environments

How can the largest producer of collaboration appliances make collaboration work where appliances typically don't? Cisco engineers are tackling the problem, before they're tackled by it.

The big problem with building an Internet of Things, companies like Cisco are learning, is that it has to be built where the things are. "Things," from a business perspective, are the tools with which business is done. Consumer-oriented companies and service providers like Google may prefer to project IoT from the consumer's point of view, where toasters can report their operating status to your browser and perhaps join social networks for toasters.

Meanwhile, the "things" that businesspeople and laborers have in mind are the tools they use to get work done. What would an Internet of Things look like for a coal mine? An offshore oil rig? An undersea excavation facility? An incident response team?

In a press conference Wednesday, Cisco took steps to reveal some early efforts to address laborers concerns--the real-world interests of women and men who are interested less in euphemisms and more in results. Cisco engineers attempted a demonstration of something called Cisco Collaborative Operations Solution. Inspired by the Start screen of Windows 8, their intention is to deploy a multi-screen operating console, showing the live contents of multiple Web applications and active conferencing sessions, in a single, horizontally-scrolling display, in place of eight or twelve monitors all in a row.

At issue for customers in these diverse environments is the difficulty of displaying everything that's pertinent to a job at any given moment, on one zoom-capable, controllable screen--especially when that screen is a tablet. The convenience of an iPad has its limits on the job.

"In addition to being able to show multiple screens, [CCOS] allows showing data sets like [oil] well data, seismic data, at the same time," said Greg Carter, the general manager of Cisco's Internet of Everything Group. "This can be coming from multiple sources. If you can imagine a use case on a drill rig, you have an issue with the [shale] shaker. You need to call in an expert who's been working on those rigs for 40 years, who's located in some office somewhere in the U.S. You're able to bring everybody into a collaboration session, bring video from fixed video cameras that are pointing at the critical piece of equipment, bring in the audio from the people who are working on the rig via two-way radios, bring in the engineer who's sitting in an office on the rig, show multiple sources of data in separate panes, and then also be able to bring in any centralized sources of data from the operations center. And then bring the expert in so they can see the whole thing over their laptop."

I used the term "attempt" with respect to the demo intentionally, because right now, CCOS looks like a multi-browser session. There's a good chance the demo intended to reveal much more than that, but it ended up showing a multitude of ordinary Web pages. Suffice it to say that, when dashboard data is displayable as Web pages, CCOS can depict those pages as components of a larger display, and can apparently transmit those components to a single conferencing session out in the field or away in an office.

Cisco also took this opportunity to roll out a new risk management and compliance assistance tool called Secure Operations Solution, for workers who extend their networks into hazardous environments--places where, Carter explained, the everyday operating circumstances change the very meaning of information security. At its core is a secure remote access tunnel between IT administrators and a secure technology environment such as manufacturing or oil and gas production, where each footstep has a security control associated with it.

Originally, field computers were "air-gapped" from network control in a well-meaning, though naïve (one cannot help but think "NSA" at this point) effort to protect critical field assets. "There was a feeling you could do security by obscurity," said Carter. "Basically, if we can't see it, then it's protected. We've learned over the last several years, with high-profile attacks, that is no longer the case."

The addition of dozens or even hundreds of tablets into these work environments expands and remodels the attack surfaces of networks, he went on, making these work environments less secure than financial and retail. "We're having to tie in many different legacy systems with lots of different protocols," he added. "If we can effectively address these challenges, it opens up a world of opportunities to us. Collaboration is a big one."

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