Benefiting from the Industrial Internet of Things requires understanding its language

Jim Montague explores the ideas of language and communication, and how those concepts apply to the all-important IIoT.

By Jim Montague

I’ve stumbled into so many unfamiliar communities, industries and topics over the years that initial disorientation, finding my balance and defining my subject have become pretty routine. One important item I’ve learned is that every group, organization, profession or community has its own dialect. They may all speak English on the surface, but their common challenges and experiences produce unique words, labels, phrases, abbreviations and other expressions—much like the inside jokes and running gags that arise in any working group or family. This process is inevitable because language is as alive as individuals that use it.

Before today’s speedy transportation and pervasive media and communications, I believe inaccessible pockets of the same region or country might develop distinct enough linguistic styles and traditions that many fellow citizens couldn’t easily understand each other. This is much less of a terrain problem now, but similarly divergent languages between professions, industries and disciplines continue to throw up barriers between people who could really benefit from talking to each other.

Of course, the main divide in the process control and automation field is between process control engineers and other operations technology (OT) professionals and their information technology (IT) counterparts. Even though advances in their computing and networking technologies promise all kinds of benefits from the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), these leaps are also shoving OT and IT together, and frustrating many professionals on both sides because they still can’t communicate effectively. I guess there are some problems that hardware and software still can’t solve.

So what can you do? Well, my default is always to ask a lot of questions, pay attention to the answers, and take notes. This is good for producing descriptions about what’s happening, and may not help optimize process applications right away, but it’s a good place to start. As with any new language, the first step is collecting some basic words, phrases and definitions to help you move around your new environment. The second step is practicing, increasing your vocabulary, and seeking to understand and appreciate the other community’s concepts, priorities and methods.

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The good news is you may already know a lot more than you think you do. When trying to understand the other side of the IT and OT equation and their joint role in IIoT, most process control and plant-floor professionals are well aware of basic aspects like Ethernet, wireless, HTML, HTTP, TCP/IP and other familiar aspects of today’s Internet networks.

As with any new language, the first step is collecting some basic words, phrases and definitions to help you move around your new environment.

This a good ground floor for another bunch of helpful software tools and networking aids that are well-known on the IT and soon-to-be-familiar on the OT side as well. Many were detailed in the August issue’s “Master IIoT” cover article, and explained in Opto 22’s recent whitepaper, “Your IoT Primer: Bridge the Gap between OT and IT” and its glossary. Some of these up-and-coming Internet tools include: Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT) messaging protocol; Secure Socket Layer/Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) protocols for encrypting data; Advanced Message Queuing Protocol (AMQP) application-layer protocol and queuing system; and eXtensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) for near-real-time data exchange.  

Taken together, all these protocols can seem overwhelming, just like being hit with rapid-fire speech in a new language. However, stepping back for a minute and learning how a few of them are used can be very helpful. Heck, most are ways to simplify and ease communication and distribution of data over the Internet, and that’s what most plant-floor folks wanted to do in the first place, right? Over time, you may even learn some of each other’s jokes, and come up with new ones, too.

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  • The examples deal with the syntax of the IIoT language but not the semantics. How to harmonize and unify the data schema and process code across the hundreds of programs mostly written by strangers is the semantics challenge. No existing programming language or development process guarantees this. This merits further dialogue among Control agents.

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  • Hi Jack -- Yes, we editors are more familiar with syntax than semantics. Personally, I know zip about data schema and process code, and even less about harmonizing them. Maybe you could describe this landscape of programs in more detail, such as primary players and landmarks, why they haven't harmonized so far, how they might go about harmonzing, and who else we might ask to find out more? Please advise when convenient. Thanks -- Jim

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