An IoT primer: bridging the gap between OT and IT

Systems 22 Pty Ltd

By Process Online Staff
Tuesday, 12 September, 2017


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You’ve probably heard about the Internet of Things (IoT) or the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), also called Industry 4.0 or the Industrial Internet. But what is it?

The IoT is poised to offer society the greatest opportunity for advancement since the Industrial Revolution: a world where all kinds of things are connected, communicating and improving our standard of living. We’re all going to be a part of it, and preparing for it now will let us take full advantage of its benefits.

According to Berg Insight, a dedicated machine-to-machine/IoT market research firm based in Sweden, the installed base of wireless IoT devices in industrial automation reached 10.3 million in 2014. Berg Insight predicts that the number of wireless IoT devices in automation networks will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 27.2% to reach 43.5 million by 2020. Industry giants like GE, Rockwell, Cisco, IBM and Microsoft are investing significant amounts of capital in IoT. If you’re not already seeing elements of the IoT in your work, you soon will.

A massive change is coming in the way we conduct business, from the design and manufacturing of goods to how we service customers. The IoT intends to connect industrial and manufacturing devices and systems (things or assets) together so we can:

  • share valuable data in real time
  • improve processes
  • tune systems autonomously
  • predict system failures before they occur
  • decrease downtime
  • reduce costs
  • increase profit.

All while improving customer experiences and providing consumers with more value.

Components of the IoT

Just in the last few years, new technologies from low-cost sensors to advanced analysis of massive amounts of data (big data) have become more widespread and easily accessible. The costs of computing power and bandwidth continue to fall, ushering in mobility like we’ve never seen before, so that you now have the ability to connect almost anything to a network. You can enable low-level sensors and actuators, collect data from those devices, convert it into a routable protocol, send it across the internet and push it into a big data analytics system — all in near real time — giving visibility into your process control systems from anywhere.

With the IoT, information flows freely from customer interaction points to business decision-makers, to resource planners, right to the manufacturing floor, and back again.

Figure 1: The IoT-enabled enterprise.

Figure 1: The IoT-enabled enterprise.

How do we get there?

While this movement toward the IoT has already started taking place and grows at an exponential rate every year, it will not happen overnight. Even with the large investments in IoT being made by so many industry giants, there are significant hurdles that need to be overcome for the benefits of the IoT to be captured.

And we won’t be able to capture those benefits without major changes in the way technologies interact in our business.

OT/IT convergence

Within a given enterprise there are operational technology systems and information technology systems. Both technologies and each set of systems were purpose-built, and neither was designed to work with the other.

Gartner defines operational technology (OT) as “hardware and software that detects or causes a change through the direct monitoring and/or control of physical devices, processes and events in the enterprise”. That’s the industrial control and manufacturing automation part of the business.

Gartner defines information technology (IT) as “the entire spectrum of technologies for information processing, including software, hardware, communications technologies and related services”. That’s the company computer network and databases.

To make things easier, you might sum up those definitions like this:

  • OT is the assets a business uses to create goods or services for sale.
  • IT is the systems used to manage the production, sale and support of those goods and services.

So both OT and IT function within the enterprise to create output (goods and services). To create output most efficiently, they need to work together.

Figure 2: Both IT and OT support the production of goods and services.

Figure 2: Both IT and OT support the production of goods and services.

But in today’s enterprise, there’s a significant communication gap between OT and IT technologies. Each uses its own methods of connectivity, from the physical connectors and buses that data rides on, to the language each uses to convert bits and bytes into human-readable and actionable information. Designed years ago, OT and IT technologies remain far apart today.

Connectivity

For decades, industrial products have been designed for long life. As a result of this long life cycle, industrial devices installed today use varied physical communication layers (fieldbuses or current loop), mostly specific to their industry.

One of the first steps in connecting legacy industrial systems to the IoT is to provide some type of conversion from these application-specific physical buses to open, ubiquitous physical interfaces such as Ethernet and wireless.

We’ll also need to aggregate smaller, simpler devices like non-networkable sensors or electric circuits into a networked gateway device, in order to transmit the sensor-level signals onto standard network interfaces and then into the primary internet communications protocol: TCP/IP.

Communications and languages

As a result of the purpose-built, application-specific nature of manufacturing and automation systems, the vast majority of devices found on the plant floor today use industrial protocols and are customised to meet application requirements.

While an industrial protocol can be useful in a single given application, eg, closed-loop process control, it creates yet another hurdle in accessing the data required to realise the benefits IoT offers.

In contrast to OT, IT enterprise networks use the same open standards and protocols found on the internet. The internet was founded on open communication standards like TCP/IP. Application-specific protocols are layered on top: HTTP/S, SMTP, SNMP, MQTT and so on.

The internet uses programming languages like JavaScript, Java and Python, and presents information using technologies like HTML5 and CSS, all of which are open.

To realise the promise of the Internet of Things, OT and IT technologies must converge, allowing connection and communication.

Perhaps in the short run, OT and IT can converge using solutions such as protocol gateways, OPC servers and middleware. However, in the long run, OT/IT convergence will demand a flattened architecture and seamless communication between assets, using open, standards-based communication protocols and programming languages.

IoT at the edge

The Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom pyramid (Figure 3) shows us the journey from raw data to wisdom. On the Internet of Things, actionable data is wisdom: what to do, when and how to do it, and how to improve business processes, reduce cost and increase profit.

Figure 3: The Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom pyramid.

Figure 3: The Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom pyramid.

The IoT is going to produce massive amounts of raw data from billions of sensors, actuators and devices. How do we sort through the data to filter out what we need and turn it into wisdom — into actionable data?

The answer is edge computing.

The majority of IoT devices will be connected at the edge of the network, the place where OT and IT physically converge. The data that OT devices generate must be mined for what is useful to the enterprise and forwarded to cloud computing systems for big data analysis, and useless data must be discarded to reduce bandwidth and noise.

Unfortunately, most of today’s OT assets like individual sensors and machines don’t have the computing power required to process and filter the data they generate. At best they are pass-through devices: data in and data out with no intelligence.

More intelligent OT assets like PLCs tend to focus on single-task automation functions and have not been designed to share that manufacturing data with other systems. So the current IoT requires third-party systems that act as data brokers between OT and IT assets. These third-party brokers understand both OT and IT languages and protocols, but they often require a great deal of programming and application development support.

To enable direct asset-to-asset or thing-to-thing communication and truly bridge the OT/IT gap, manufacturers will push intelligence down directly into OT assets and enable those assets with IT communication capabilities, protocols and languages.

We already see increasing capabilities as OT assets are beginning to be developed from the ground up with IoT applications in mind. Over time, we’ll see not only communication technologies but also increasing intelligence, allowing assets on the edge to interpret and filter their own data into information and then expose it via standard formats documented as web APIs.

Indeed, to fully realise the benefits the IoT has to offer, OT assets will need to be designed with web technologies built directly into them, such as HTTP for interaction, SSL/TLS encryption and authentication for data security, and JSON for data format. This approach is available today and is called RESTful architecture.

Getting started with the IoT today

If you’re excited about the possibilities the IoT offers for your application — or if you just want to be prepared for the future — here are some ideas to get started now.

Start small

The IoT is a big concept with lots of moving parts. Developing a strategy to begin implementing IoT in your business doesn’t have to be complicated. Start small and experiment.

The IoT is a concept, an idea, not a hard-and-fast set of rules. It’s a method of looking at disparate systems and asking ourselves: what if those two machines could talk to each other? What could we learn if we could quickly pull any data we wanted and look for correlations between datasets? Over time, getting different devices to communicate with each other will become easier and easier.

Educate

A good place to start is to learn about new technologies that are involved with the IoT. If you’re coming from the process control and industrial automation side of the OT/IT convergence, it’s a good idea to bone up on your basic networking skills.

  • Learn how Ethernet switches and routers move data across the internet.
  • Know what an IP address is and understand the potential need for IPv6.
  • Get an overview of various web technologies and programming languages.

You certainly don’t have to be a networking expert. But a general familiarity with these technologies will only make your life easier as the OT/IT convergence picks up momentum.

Be aware that important new skills will be required in your organisation. Networking is one of these; other key skills are in programming languages and architectures (such as RESTful) and definitely in network security.

Your first IoT project

Identifying the need

Each IoT application is different, depending on your business. And unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all solution for developing your IoT project. However, one of the objectives of the IoT is to increase efficiencies, and that’s a good place to start.

Here’s a general three-step strategy you can apply for developing your first IoT project:

  1. Identify potential. Walk around your facility, talk to your operators, and identify laborious manual processes such as pen-and-paper data collection and Excel spreadsheet data entry tasks. Also identify potentially useful data that is currently siloed and unavailable to other systems and business decision-makers.
  2. Collect data. Look for opportunities to collect this data at an asset or ‘thing’ level. For example, is there a sensor you could install to more closely monitor and log your process? Instrumenting equipment is the first step to getting enhanced levels of information from the plant, remotely monitoring assets, and analysing production and reliability.
  3. Centralise and analyse. Identify a way to aggregate the data into a central repository. This may require some type of IoT gateway or protocol converter and a database to house the information. Once you’ve centralised the data, you can analyse opportunities to optimise processes. For example, develop a report to cross-analyse your newly found sensor data with production output. Do certain variables in the process relate to a higher or lower yield?
Justifying the investment

As the IoT becomes clearer, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the potential costs and complexity associated with IoT applications. It is important to remain focused on whether a project will benefit the enterprise by reducing cost or improving quality. You should be able to clearly demonstrate a measurable return on investment.

For example, perhaps you could connect a power monitoring device to your plant’s main power feed and start monitoring power usage. Once you’ve started collecting power monitoring data, over time you’ll be able to determine exactly what it costs in real time to turn on a motor, run a process or have the building air conditioning set to 25°C.

Or perhaps you want a daily report emailed to you showing production count, raw material inventory and average production time. All of this data can be captured through IoT technology and brought right to your mobile device.

Again, it doesn’t have to be complicated. And technologies to accomplish all of these applications are available today, off the shelf.

It’s like magic, but it isn’t. It’s the Internet of Things.

It’s going to change everything, and we’re all going to be a part of it.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/adam121

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