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Interoperability and the IIoT

March 2, 2021
The end-user notion of interoperability doesn't always jibe with that of our suppliers

I may covet an Apple Watch, but it may never be capable of connecting and integrating with my Google smartphone. Meanwhile, my Fitbit connects to both Android and Apple phones as well as my Windows laptop. So, if Fitbit strives for and achieves some measure of interoperability, why doesn’t the much larger and much more powerful Apple Inc.?

We know the answer: because they don’t have to. Apple’s wares are so coveted and so symbolic of cool, enlightened chic that end users care more about form than function. In our marketplace, we’re perhaps less slave to fashion. However, to our suppliers and their shareholders, being our Apple Inc. would be the Holy Grail. And we experience it: even our most accomplished providers steer us to an ecosystem dominated by their wares and offerings; they’re more interoperable with themselves than anyone else. Interoperability may be a desire of mine, but it’s not always a priority for suppliers.

Meanwhile, if your residence is accumulating connected devices like mine—with computers and smart phones already connected, and so are lamps, stoves and power outlets—aren’t we already awash in some manner of interoperability? How great is it that the oven sends me a notification when it’s preheated? Meanwhile, in our industries, we're struggling to cobble together disparate networks and protocols in the hopes of revealing some nugget of insight that will fend off a calamity. That is, if we’re not discouraged from even trying.

Protocol barriers, legacy systems lacking support for intelligent devices, copious noise and spam from intelligent devices we already have, let alone cybersecurity hurdles, all combine to stifle us from reaching beyond reactive firefighting and forensics. The realm of predictive diagnostics and the hope of detecting an impending failure before it impacts the flow of products seems distant. What are our choices? Does the apparent ease of integration of consumer devices portend anything for the industrial realm? Maybe it does, but maybe we won’t like the answer.

If you were around four decades ago when the first personal computers were becoming available, they were as much an amusement for hobbyists and experimenters as they were useful tools, a little reminiscent of today’s Raspberry Pi and its ilk. There was no interoperability until IBM released its “PC Compatible” architecture, which allowed virtually anyone to manufacture a mostly interoperable and affordable computer. Many would argue this phenomenon was responsible for the pervasiveness of the Windows PC, which for decades was viewed as a buggy and inelegant imitation of its Apple-branded cousins. It was a “VHS versus Betamax” retread. They were a pair of incompatible, dueling protocols, and between them, the "best" standard didn’t necessarily win.

Can you imagine a world where standards are crafted to exclude competitors from becoming interoperable, or at least make the hurdle steep enough to keep out the riffraff? And, the fact that there were winners and losers might be a thread that persists in the Industrial IoT.

Process industry end users have benefitted from participating in the broader marketplace for commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) offerings like Ethernet switches and Windows devices. It’s been a great benefit despite the ongoing hassles with cybersecurity, patches, passwords and administration, let alone incursions from the IT realm. But we’re a smallish community, uniquely predisposed—and funded—to pay a premium for customized, specified-for-purpose, and not rarely built-for-purpose appliances and software solutions. Organizations like NAMUR recognize this class of end users and still band together to encourage standards for controls and instrumentation to better serve their end-user community. Back across the Atlantic, it seems we’re fewer and less united.

We’re a conservative (cautious) community, inclined to stick with what works in lieu of exploring less familiar solutions. Or we’re simply too covered up by thin staffing and always having to choose which battle to fight on any given day. But if you’re not content with monopoly or duopoly-driven interoperability, your engagement in standards creation is essential.

About the author: John Rezabek
About the Author

John Rezabek | Contributing Editor

John Rezabek is a contributing editor to Control

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