One of the biggest topics of conversation at Emerson Exchange Immerse 2023 held this week in Anaheim, Calif., has been the challenge presented by cloud implementation, particularly for OT and on the industrial edge. It’s no secret that IT departments in many companies and industries have embraced cloud solutions successfully. After all, it’s quick, cost-efficient and flexible. And while OT cloud implementation lags that of IT, the tide seems to be changing, said Emerson CTO Peter Zornio to a panel of industry experts convened on the topic. The panelists agreed.
Jose Valls, CTO of manufacturing at Microsoft, said just about every company is using the cloud in some way these days, mostly to optimize processes. “We’ve been working with almost any company you can name,” he said.
Erik Lindhjem, vice president and general manager of reliability solutions for Emerson, pointed out that the changing nature of business post-COVID has made it easier and more necessary for OT decision-makers to embrace cloud applications. He said Emerson sees more customers with remote users accessing their OT instrumentation, so those applications have been moved into the cloud. “We have customers using AMS Optics across 20 facilities,” he said, adding that the cloud has made data democratization among those users much easier to achieve.
Drivers of adoption
Zornio, Valls, Lindjhem, and fellow panelists Steve Williams, vice president of portfolio product strategy at AspenTech, and Brian LaMothe, vice president of cloud application development at Emerson, said distributed edge operations have raised the profile of cloud adoption across the process industries.
“There could be cost advantages,” Williams said of using cloud on the edge. “You just have to make sure those distributed systems are sufficiently managed. I’m very optimistic about the way DeltaV Edge is going.” DeltaV Edge is a secure-by-design solution that enables users to easily access DeltaV data and make it available for use on premise or in the cloud.
Williams said that AspenTech sees a lot of processing facilities turning to cloud solutions for supply chain management, especially if they are sharing significant information with their customers. However, many are still at the point where they prefer to stick with their own private servers, he added.
Zornio and LaMothe agreed that collaboration is a big driver of adoption in OT cloud applications. LaMothe also sees two main areas where cloud-based OT applications have needs that IT applications might not. “It comes back to mean time to repair,” he said. There must be a way to identify an issue and be able to process it in a timelier fashion than what is available now, he said. The second area of focus is the need for automated quality systems that use AI or machine learning to test for and detect any operational unknowns in the data.
Other drivers of growth in cloud solutions for OT include the needs for process reliability and sustainability. Williams said the cloud can be very helpful for companies seeking to solidify their sustainable operations and reporting.
While companies may want to integrate cloud solutions into their processes, they still must figure out how they will consume and integrate the distributed technologies. IT adoption mainly happens via software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions. All the panelists felt the SaaS model is well established by IT and OT will most likely follow the proven ground.
But Valls cautioned that it’s not as simple as it seems. “They don’t just have one SaaS model, but a variety of models from multiple companies,” he said. “How will the end-user bring all those siloed SaaS solutions together to interconnect? That is the role a company like ours, Microsoft, wants to play.”
LaMothe offered a solution. “You provide an API, and you can filter what data you want. Providing that mechanism through a standard API is our approach,” he said.
Regardless of the method, operators must know their data is safe and for many, it’s still hard to believe in safety when moving to the cloud, according to Williams. “It’s a process,” he said of efforts to appease customers. “We still have customers who want to do things in their private clouds. I will say there is a wave moving in the SaaS direction and a growing belief that security is advancing.”
Panelists offered advice to those in the audience who may be teetering on the brink of moving into the cloud. LaMothe advised them to be open-minded and to start with lower risk action items, in terms of data security. Williams encouraged them to have faith in the advancements being made but maintain a purpose for adoption. He added that you need a business strategy for implementation to be successful.
Meanwhile, Lindjhem said there’s no reason to try to avoid cloud adoption. “It’s here and it’s not going away,” he said. “Now, with the edge piece, it’s just a matter of finding balance. Security will make it possible. There’s no reason not to pursue it.”