Moving Your Historian to the Cloud — Carefully

Process Manufacturers Already Are Leveraging Cloud Technologies for Process Control-Related Applications

By Jim Montague

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ABB Automation & Power World 2013

It's good to learn about a place before you move there — especially if you're a process historian that's thinking about moving its data to the cloud.

Unfortunately, many potential users still don't know exactly what "the cloud" is, how it works, how they could benefit from using it, and how they can do so securely and safely. To help clear up some of these issues, a four-person panel discussion entitled "Moving Plant Historian Data to the Cloud" was held this week at ABB Automation and Power World in Orlando, Fla.

Moderator Peter Reynolds, senior consultant at ARC Advisory Group, reported that the cloud is generally computing that's performed offsite from its consumer as a service. The cloud is enabled by the fact that Internet is everywhere, that many PCs are now running as virtual devices and operating systems on large-server infrastructures, and that they're accessed by technology-savvy users with consumer-based devices such as smart phones and tablet PCs.

"As a result, the enterprise software business is evolving to a new model, which sells apps that run as subscription services on private or public clouds, can be implemented in weeks or days, can support a diverse user ecosystem, are managed and upgraded by the supplier and provide tools for global cooperation," said Reynolds. "There are still barriers between operations technology [OT], which requires high availability, and IT, which stresses confidentiality, but automation suppliers are still evolving to be more like IT departments and taking on tasks like doing critical updates for users."

For example, panelist Kenneth Jackson, global process control leader and corporate integration and testing center manager at DuPont Engineering, reported that his company has migrated to Microsoft's Office 365 cloud-based service for its corporate email and some collaboration applications. This leads some observers to speculate that manufacturing software is likely to be drawn into the cloud in the future. "Our prime concern is always safety, security and more recently, cybersecurity, and there are still a lot of issues to work out," said Jackson. "So we're just using a private cloud infrastructure in our process control area and for some regional alarm management." 

Consequently, while real-time execution environments will still be located on-site to perform critical control and safety functions, Reynolds added that plant monitoring, analytics, enterprise and business tasks are all going to cloud-based servers and services, which means cybersecurity is also becoming even more important. "Many users still underestimate the risks to industrial networks and don't take appropriate measures," explained Reynolds. "Suppliers have made some progress in providing security tools to meet the needs of industry, but many gaps exist in site practice. The challenge for manufacturing IT is that many end users continue to think that operations and the supply chain are their only core competencies, and that IT doesn't really do value-added work. Nevertheless, cloud computing is about delivering more solutions faster."

For instance, while the cloud can't be used for critical process control systems, it can be used to aggregate and transfer non-plant-specific information, according to panelist Michael Williams, senior asset manager, Dow Chemical Co., which is also going to Office 365 email on April 1. "We can use the cloud for internal opportunities, such as going beyond some of OSHA's requirements as part of our continuous process improvement efforts," said Williams. "When latency and security aren't criteria, using the cloud can make economic sense. These tools can be employed if users have the discipline and security to apply them appropriately. And we vet and test suppliers, and denial of service is a metric we use. If a supplier can't meet the level we need, then we don't use them."

Consequently, some automation suppliers such as ABB are working with public cloud providers like Microsoft Azure to offer cloud-based automation supplier services, including a "hybrid cloud historian model" that maintains its enterprise historian in the cloud and also makes a local copy of its historian data, according to Reynolds. This and other tools are expected to be available via cloud-based services. They will help enable knowledge workers who are always connected to analytical tools by their smart phones and other mobile devices. "There are many other devices that can be layered on the cloud, and these enable better analytics and drill-downs to useful data," added Reynolds.

Marc Leroux, collaborative production management monitor for ABB's Automation Technologies division, reported that it already has a solution for collecting process data, transferring it to the cloud-based service ABB maintains with Microsoft Azure, and then storing, analyzing and visualizing results for better decision-making. "ABB is in a unique position because we already have historian, data analysis, management execution system (MES), advanced process control (APC), operator effectiveness, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), energy management and device asset management capabilities. However, we recently acquired Ventyx, which had data warehousing, equipment reliability, asset health, maintenance management and other functions. And all of them can benefit from using cloud-based storage and applications, and do it securely and safely," explained Leroux.

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