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IoT in the industrial arena

  • Internet of Things

IoT in the industrial arena

When the Internet of Things strays into industry, you may need to clean up after it.

– appeared originally in DataCenterDynamics Magazine (June/July 2017 issue).

To a technology enthusiast the Internet of Things (IoT) is like a pet – it’s been around for a while, we’re all used to it, and it’s here to stay. But what happens when you walk that pet into the industrial world? You’ll get devices that are much better than humans at capturing and communicating big data in a manufacturing setting; that is, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

If you then take your IIoT pet to a neighboring data center, the changes are vast. And depending on who you talk to, IIoT could mean the difference between the data center becoming less relevant, or more useful – with a little help from its friends. Over the past couple of years we’ve seen a growing understanding of the value in connecting operations technology (OT) assets with information technology assets. It’s an educational process, but engineers on both sides of the OT/IT divide are beginning to identify business opportunities in combining these two traditionally disconnected disciplines.

Matt Newton attests to this. As director of technical marketing for industrial automation developer and manufacturer Opto 22, he’s aware of industry expectations. “The biggest expectation,” Newton said, “is better interoperability between OT and IT technology. Traditionally, OT and IT systems have used different protocols and programming languages. But as Internet technologies are increasingly adopted in the manufacturing, process control and industrial automation markets, engineers are looking for parity in OT and IT technology.” That means traditional automation controllers, like PLCs and PACs, are starting to add programming language capabilities like JavaScript and C++, Newton said. “It’s part of an overall encompassing trend towards embracing open standards and Internet technologies.”

The biggest change Newton sees coming- that data centers in particular need to be aware of – is how to handle the massive amounts of data that operations technology devices are going to start generating: “Our existing infrastructure wasn’t designed to cope with that much data. All engineers need to be aware of the concept of edge computing, where we push some intelligence down to the network edge to help process data before it’s passed up to cloud-based applications that reside in data centers.”

It would help if data center managers got a basic understanding of OT protocols and languages such as Modbus and Ethernet/IP, and an understanding of how automation controllers and industrial I/O are used.

IIoT connectivity is well understood, compared to even a couple of years ago. The Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) has produced an Industrial Internet Connectivity Framework (IICF) which analyzes the various standards, provides practical guidance on selection and clarifies how they can work together. This includes networking from the “things,” through the data center, to the cloud.

“Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) systems need practical AI and high-speed networking in the field,” said Dr Stan Schneider, CEO at IIoT firm Real-Time Innovations. “Autonomous cars are great examples: The intelligence has to be on the vehicle. Connectivity back to the data center is also important, of course.” Deployments like intelligent hydro and wind power, smart hospital systems and autonomous cars could change industries across the economy, Dr Schneider says.

His perspective on IIoT’s impact on the data center is slightly different in tone. He said data centers are quickly becoming less relevant: “Cheap, capable processors in the field, when combined with much more functional software, are reducing the need to send everything to the cloud.” He often hears Peter Levine’s prediction of the demise of the cloud (The End of Cloud Computing, Andreessen Horowitz) cited.

What should data center managers do? Schneider says: “They should be considering a world where the cloud has seen its best days. It’s still five to 10 years out, but the trend is already clear.”

The ‘only’ compelling role for cloud computing in IIoT, is optimizing existing applications. “But, the IIoT’s biggest economic impact,” Schneider says, “comes from enabling new things.” The main goal for data center managers should be understanding this new paradigm, from a non-IT perspective.

There’s no doubt – interoperability, scalability and security are going to be key as more and more systems and applications are deployed. These topics have been discussed over the past couple of years, but Dr Schneider believes now is the time when companies are looking for real solutions. He said it is crucial that these technical elements are built into the IIoT systems, rather than plugged in as an afterthought. “In the next few years, the industry must (finally) get serious about making real change. Many companies have been in ‘wait and see’ mode to avoid risk. Avoiding that risk and being left behind is becoming riskier than moving.”

The increasing clarity on options, however, offered by initiatives like the IICF, reduces the risk of choosing incorrectly. Dr Schneider concluded: “The likelihood of a new technology coming along in enough time to matter is declining as well. In short, the industry is expecting to see both sufficient technology and guidance to let them realize all the potential.”

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