IIoT developers start delivering better process data

Success stories coming in as IT technologists zero in on the problems and applications of industrial facilities.

By Bob Sperber

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Twenty-five years ago, companies would never trust their hardcore industrial processes to desktop PC hardware and operating systems, or trust them to an online bookseller, search engine startup or light bulb maker. However, business models change, and Amazon has been in the cloud-computing game for more than a decade.

Today, Amazon Web Services (AWS) dominates the Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) business (Figure 1). Its annual revenues hover at roughly $7 billion, which is far ahead of IT mainstays IBM and Oracle, and competes with second-place Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud and now, GE’s related Predix offering.

A few years ago, control engineers would have found it unthinkable for a corporate IT analyst to check in on the performance of a valve or pressure transmitter—much less bypass the plant historian, DCS and control network. Today, this is just the kind of chasm-crossing enabled by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

But it’s not easy. “The process industries have some particular challenges, requiring individual IoT solutions,” says Tanja Rueckert, executive vice president of IoT and customer innovation at SAP. She acknowledges the “very heterogeneous, long-living assets that may not always be instrumented to modern standards,” which can benefit from “IoT solutions” with broad ranging benefits to operations, maintenance, energy consumption, yield and quality. 


IaaS 1st half of 2015..

Serving up infrastructure

Figure 1: Infrastructure as a service (IaaS) let users set up virtual servers and storage in a provider's data center. The largest of these include Amazon, Microsoft and IBM, according to Statista's report at www.statista.com/topics/1695/cloud-computing/. [GRAPHIC CREDIT] Statista


Challenges in the field

So what are the key challenges to hasten IIoT adoption in process plants? Cybersecurity compliance (with ICS-CERT, etc.), aging plant assets and an aging IIoT-unaware workforce are among the greatest of them. Add to that the many “disparate data sources that can't properly be integrated and analyzed for insights into operating conditions or business opportunities,” says Todd Gardner, vice president of Siemens Industry Inc.'s Process Automation Business. “And, perhaps above all, a general tendency to not yet recognize the full potential that lies waiting to be exploited in a digital enterprise."

Gardner adds, "Process manufacturers are already experiencing the pains of evolving digitalization. One of the greatest challenges is for manufacturers to become resolved to modernize and more fully integrate their automation environment. Making such a decision also immediately helps with a second great challenge, the growing threat of cyber-attack. In fiscal year 2015, ICS-CERT responded to a record 97 incidents in the Critical Manufacturing sector, nearly doubling the 2014 number and becoming the incident leading sector for ICS-CERT. Another 71 incidents were reported between the Energy sector and Water and Wastewater Systems sector.

"It's those same islands of automation, coupled with an antiquated, modular security concept, that makes too many plants soft targets today, despite many expensive and complicated countermeasures being put into place. Again, the way out of that box is to modernize and integrate the automation environment, with security built natively into the system from the field level up."

Connectivity, computing, power and cloud

Of course, Greg Conary, senior vice president of strategy at Schneider Electric was right when he blogged last year, “The Industrial Internet of Things is an evolution, not a revolution.”

Revolution or not, Dan Miklovic, principal analyst with LNS Research, calls IIoT “disruptive” in the best sense, and a “perfect storm” of connectivity, computing power and cloud capabilities. But, “The beauty of IIoT is that you don’t have to rip and replace," adds Miklovic. "You can do it as a phased implementation, and start with the low-hanging fruit. When a device fails, or when it’s time to upgrade a system, newer-generation replacement alternatives are already in the marketplace.

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"IoT makes both the data and computing power readily accessible to anyone anywhere at any time. This, despite the fact that IoT still has some security and other issues to resolve so some unauthorized user on a smartphone in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., doesn’t shut down a nuclear reactor in San Bernadino, Calif. These are being ironed out. Plant databases are now converting to ‘data lakes in the cloud.’ Even if the data aren’t hosted in the cloud, it’s accessible to the cloud you want to deploy such as Predix, Amazon, Microsoft, Google or others as long as that data has the right descriptive metadata."

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