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Achieving the promise of IIoT

17 March, 2017

Once a far-off science fiction fantasy, the connected enterprise has become a very real part of the here and now. Companies from every conceivable sector are using the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to build better, more efficient facilities and supply chains. By 2020, there could be anywhere between 50 and 200 billion connected devices in operation around the World and many of these will be working in an industrial capacity. From production line equipment to pipeline pumps and monitors, connected devices are already having a big impact – and it’s only going to get bigger. Andy Bailey, Stratus solutions architect, looks at combining OT and IT systems to achieve the promise of IIoT.

In order to reap the maximum benefit from the IIoT, enterprises need to merge manufacturing operations and control systems with business planning and logistics systems. While these two spheres have traditionally been almost completely isolated, it is no longer sustainable to have them walled off from each other. Only by integrating the entire operation can you enable the data synergy that drives the efficiency gains at the heart of the IIoT value proposition. Combining operational technology (OT) with information technology (IT) is one of the principal challenges that IIoT adopters face, but is fundamental to making the most of the extraordinary opportunity that the technology presents. So, what is the nature of this challenge?

Competing priorities

The competing priorities of OT and IT are at the heart of the challenge. For operational technology, availability is the number one priority. Interruptions to operation and control systems can have an immediate and highly damaging effect on a plant’s productivity, so unexpected downtime must be avoided at all costs. Successful IT is also predicated on good availability, but good availability of IT systems means nothing if the data and systems aren’t secure. The integrity of the network therefore takes priority. Successfully combining OT and IT requires therefore that availability and security are given significance, and this presents difficulties for any operator unaccustomed to juggling these two competing priorities.

Another challenge is the diffuse way that operational technology tends to function within the industrial environment. Spread throughout the plant and often using mismatched and outdated control systems, OT setups contain numerous single points of failure and pose real difficulties to those looking to integrate and standardise. The benefits offered by the IIoT can only be realised by migrating to an entirely new, interconnected setup in which any single component can communicate in real time with any other.

The risks and benefits of virtualisation

While this kind of interconnected setup may seem like uncharted territory for operational technologists, integrated solutions like this have long been commonplace in IT environments. Virtualised systems have been particularly successful, as they offer technicians access to the enterprise’s full range of control and monitoring equipment on a single physical machine. The benefits here are obvious, but so too are the risks; a single point acting as a hub for the entire operation means that if something goes wrong, it goes wrong everywhere. This can lead to the unplanned downtime that the system was installed to help defend against. The solution to this is to have a robust availability strategy, but what does one of those look like in practice?

Four main tenets

An effective availability strategy will look different for every enterprise, but there are four features of good strategies that are universal across all manner of connected enterprises.

1. Knowing how much unexpected downtime you can handle

What happens if your business goes offline for half an hour? What about for a week? Smart companies take the time to work out what their uptime needs are and plan accordingly. Protecting yourself from nasty surprises requires resources, so it pays to work out whether you need ‘five nines’ or ‘three nines’ availability.

Vital or sensitive components of the operation naturally require a higher availability. There are several ways to achieve this; high-availability clusters are one, though opting for a hardware-based solution cancels out the benefits of virtualisation. Software-based approaches offer a similar level of protection, and will be running on industry standard servers – exactly the same ones the rest of the enterprise will be using anyway.

2. “Inflight” data protection

In an IIoT installation, there is an enormous amount of data flying around at any given moment. Travelling from the ‘Things’ in the system to the central data stores and analytics engines, the information generated by the system is valuable in all sorts of ways. Purely from an operational perspective, the data is needed to keep the various pieces of machinery working optimally. In a more extreme situation the integrity of the data might make the difference between the analytics engines correctly predicting a part failure and missing it - an outcome that would lead to significant unexpected downtime. Protecting the inflight data has to be one of the priorities of the availability strategy

3. Keeping everything simple

There’s nothing new about complexity in the World of IT. But when it comes time to combine IT and OT systems, there is so much potential for complexity that simplicity must be fought for tooth and nail. This is especially true of those systems close to the edge, as operational staff are not ordinarily trained to deal with problems that arise from information technology.

With that in mind, a good availability strategy will contain solutions to anticipated problems that are easily deployed and managed. Operational teams usually have more than enough to be getting on with, without trying to figure out complicated IT systems that they haven’t been trained on.

4. Future-proofing the business

Not every enterprise is ready for a top-to-bottom, bells-and-whistles IIoT installation just yet, but decisions made now will have a real impact on how easy it is to install one further down the line. Smart enterprises are investing in systems built to standards that will maximise their future flexibility and avoid the headache of a total change of approach a few years down the line. With foresight, you can get the benefit of a gradual transition and all the associated benefits: reduced capital expenditure and minimal disruption to the working environment.

Fortune favours the brave

Nothing worth doing is ever easy, and migrating from a legacy automation environment to an IIoT installation needs careful management. The potential benefits however, are undeniable. Industry observers have claimed that machine-to-machine communication means that 94% of IIoT installations are already paying for themselves. And the IIoT journey is just beginning. As enterprises become more interconnected, the data they generate will become increasingly more useful and will drive further innovation. By taking a thoughtful approach to merging IT and OT systems, one plus one really can equal three.

For further informtion please visit: www.stratus.com/modernise

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