Containers and IoT: A Match Made in the Cloud

David Bisson -
Illustration: © IoT For All

IoT is on the rise. Per GlobalNewswire, a new report from Reportlinker.com revealed that the IoT services market was expected to decline from $143.48 billion in 2019 to $139.36 in 2020 as a result of coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) but then ultimately increase to $260.41 billion in 2023. IoT Business News looked out even further and found that smart devices were expected to grow from 7.6 billion devices to 24.1 billion devices between 2019 and 2030, with the market ultimately reaching a value of $1.5 trillion in that year.

Notwithstanding these growth forecasts, IoT devices present unique challenges to organizations. According to IoT Evolution World, several obstacles stand out for smart products. These are as follows:

Connectivity

Organizations expect their IoT devices to work without interruption. This is easier than it sounds, however. Wireless connectivity can be complex, especially with wireless standards and associated technologies constantly evolving. It’s particularly challenging to ensure the availability of these devices on networks that serve many smart products along with traditional IT assets.

Continuity

Once they ensure that their IoT devices are connected to the network, organizations need to ensure that those products have enough juice to fulfill their intended purpose. This is important in more specialized environments. For instance, organizations need to ensure that the IoT devices serving their industrial environments have a long enough battery life not to require replacement every few months. Otherwise, the organization’s industrial processes could suffer disruptions that could potentially affect public safety. As another example, organizations must ensure that medical devices such as pacemakers serve their owners without fail.

Cybersecurity

Traditional digital security solutions tend to provide coverage for the network and the cloud, but they’re less effective against endpoints and Over-The-Air (OTA) vulnerabilities. As noted above, wireless protocols are complex, and many companies design their smart products with the aim of speed to market, not security, in mind. Together, these factors open opportunities for malicious actors to compromise organizations’ IoT devices. They can then use those products to gain access to larger swaths of the network and/or steal the organization’s data.

These challenges raise the question: how can organizations make the most of their IoT devices?

Containers: Possible Solution

Some organizations are turning to containers as a solution. As explained by Docker, containers are standardized units of software that house an application’s code and all of its dependencies. Containers are therefore capable of running on computing environments regardless of the underlying infrastructure or host operating system.

It’s this portability that makes containers an ideal solution to some of the challenges described above. As explained by CRN, containers can run on both the client and server, and they allow admins to push out fixes as container images. They make it easier for organizations to develop software and manage updates for the endpoint devices on which all IoT implementations rely.

Containers don’t just support the organization’s current IoT devices. They also facilitate the ability of the organization to scale its IoT environment. They do so by enabling a microservices model in which organizations can deploy devices, software, and other resources in the cloud across loosely coupled and independent units. Such a modular approach allows organizations to rapidly deploy and manage more complex applications while consuming fewer computing resources than virtual machines

A Caveat with Containers

There are certain challenges with using containers, however. Tech Target notes that the Docker container platform’s original design supports traditional x86-based computer architectures, for instance. These architectures do not commonly feature in IoT devices. By contrast, these smart products frequently use ARM, a type of processor that Docker does support but has received less testing in the security community. These devices might use Android as an alternative, but this OS also doesn’t enjoy Docker support.

Organizations also need to remember that containers are not impervious to digital security threats. If not properly protected, they could suffer from security weaknesses that could enable malicious actors to access the device and leverage them for stealing an organization’s data.

Acknowledging these risks, organizations need to make an effort to address these challenges. They should begin by carefully researching their IoT devices before purchasing them. Part of this process should involve determining whether the computer architectures of a specific IoT device would support an organization’s containers. It should also consist of figuring out whether the devices have undergone security testing by the vendor.

It’s at that point when the IT department can design and/or segment the network that accounts for each of the organization’s containers’ connectivity needs. This process requires adequate planning that takes each container’s intended purpose (such as which IoT devices they might run) into consideration. From there, IT team personnel can use the best practices identified by StackRox to protect their container images. These guidelines include removing nonessential software and regularly scanning the images for vulnerabilities.

Author
David Bisson

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Guest writers are IoT experts and enthusiasts interested in sharing their insights with the IoT industry through IoT For All. If you're interested in contributing to IoT For All, cli...
Guest writers are IoT experts and enthusiasts interested in sharing their insights with the IoT industry through IoT For All. If you're interested in contributing to IoT For All, cli...