The Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) has been hyped as the “next big thing” for manufacturing and other industrial businesses. Believe the hype. We’re witnessing just the beginning of the inevitable transition to a decentralized, automated control environment that will transform manufacturing and take operational efficiency and product innovation to new heights — creating new business models in the process.
As the number of sensors and control points proliferates dramatically through the deployment of successive generations of industrial automation systems, centralized points of control will no longer be feasible. Instead, sophisticated software platforms on the shop floor and in remote locations will make autonomous decisions, collect and consolidate localized data, and report results to centralized locations for analysis to drive rapid decision-making that increases business agility.
However, the more autonomous and interconnected this IIOT ecosystem becomes, the more critical is the issue of system availability. IIOT environments rely fundamentally on an “always-on” infrastructure — with the potential for catastrophic results if “on” switches to “off” for even a brief interval.
Given this new reality, I believe there are three key issues that business and technology leaders should consider as they navigate the transition to the IIOT-enabled manufacturing enterprise.
1. Recognize how Operational Technology (OT) differs from Information Technology (IT)
Say “enterprise technology” and the following image probably leaps to mind: a gleaming, climate-controlled data center filled with racks of blinking servers, switches and storage platforms, with a team of skilled technologists constantly at the ready to attend to the systems in their charge. These systems are typically based on the latest technologies and are constantly upgraded to keep pace with ever-changing business demands, technology advances and security threats. That’s the world of IT.
Things are different in the world of OT. Operational Technology is focused on the design, implementation, maintenance, and operation of the systems tasked with running manufacturing equipment at the edge — from the warehouse and shop floor to remote locations out in the field. These systems are not housed in climate-controlled data centers, but in cramped industrial environments where every square foot is dedicated to revenue-generating equipment and activities. OT platforms don’t have teams of technologists on hand to address problems or outages. And they are expected to run continuously, without interruption, day in and day out.
Given these stark differences, traditional IT approaches to availability don’t work well for OT applications. To meet the demands of the IIOT, availability solutions at the edge must be simple, highly reliable and easy to maintain, without requiring a lot of attention or space.
Consider the example of a company operating thousands of miles of gas pipelines. They rely on a network of compression stations along the pipeline to maintain volumetric pressure and keep the gas flowing. These remote stations require multiple applications to operate properly. Dedicating a server to each application is costly and complex, and takes up valuable space in remote locations where every square foot counts. If a server goes down, a new one must be configured back at headquarters, transported out to the remote compression station and installed. The application on that server could be down for two or three days, potentially disrupting operations.
A better approach would be equipping the compression stations with a single, simple, fault-tolerant, virtualized server — designed specifically for industrial applications — that delivers continuous service while consuming less space. This virtualized approach also simplifies the process of pushing new applications out to these remote stations, avoiding the costly process of sending technicians out to the physical location to deploy new capabilities.
Deploying simple, compact, flexible platforms that can be easily maintained by OT personnel — or remotely by IT staff — is a critical success factor for achieving availability in an IIOT deployment.
2. Understand the potential vulnerability of virtualization
Virtualization has transformed the way enterprises deploy technology, delivering significant cost savings and operational efficiencies. By enabling multiple applications to run on the same platform, rather than on separate dedicated platforms, virtualization delivers dramatic reductions in hardware costs, energy consumption, rack space, and maintenance, just to name a few.
As wonderful as virtualization is for efficiency, it does present a potential issue that is often overlooked. By consolidating multiple processing workloads onto a single machine, virtualization also concentrates the potential points of failure. In effect, it puts all your processing eggs into a single basket. If a virtualized server goes down, it could take not one, but several applications down with it. So that basket has to be extremely reliable — especially in remote industrial locations beyond the easy reach of technology professionals.
Enterprises leveraging the advantages of virtualization to reduce cost, complexity and space must think very carefully about how to maintain availability of their virtualized applications. Deploying virtual platforms designed specifically for the rigors of industrial workloads at the edge is a crucial — and often ignored — success factor for highly automated, IIOT environments.
3. Define your downtime tolerance — and deploy accordingly
Studies have attempted to quantify the impact of downtime in a variety of industries. The fact is, each deployment has its own unique downtime tolerance. That’s why a thoughtful, cost-effective IIOT availability strategy weighs business risks against the implications of downtime for that deployment.
In some business applications, like email, an outage of an hour or two is annoying but likely not detrimental to the business. In the manufacturing plant, it’s a different story. Platform failures of even a few seconds leave operators blind to the systems they are monitoring. Depending on the process, the consequences can be dire. An outage of an application running a packaging line in a pharmaceutical plant or a robotic system in a silicon chip production line can create a ripple effect in productivity that could have a measurable effect on that quarter’s revenue. Interruptions in systems that impact worker or public safety could have even more serious consequences. And, as already noted, these operational technology platforms are often beyond the reach of technologists who can respond rapidly to get them back on line.
By definition, the IIOT increases the scale and remoteness of deployments exponentially. Delegating the technical implementation of an industrial automation or IIOT project to those focused only on costs or budgets, without understanding the full business implications of potential weaknesses in the solution, is asking for trouble. Matching the robustness of the IIOT solution to the potential business impacts of a system failure is a key factor that cannot be overlooked.
New World, New Rules
For anyone still wondering, the coming of the IIOT is not a question of “if” but “when.” The business advantages of increased monitoring and sophisticated analytics enabled by decentralized, autonomous industrial automation are too compelling to ignore. As with any major shift, successfully harnessing the technologies that enable the IIOT requires a clear understanding of both the opportunities and the potential pitfalls — including the specialized availability requirements of the IIOT-enabled industrial enterprise.
Recognizing the unique nature of operational technology (OT), meeting the requirements of virtualization in IIOT deployments and matching your IIOT availability strategy to your particular business requirements are all crucial success factors. Building your availability strategy around solutions that are simple, reliable, easily serviced, and built for the long haul is a crucial step in realizing the business benefits that the IIOT promises.
John Fryer is Senior Director of Product Marketing at Stratus Technologies.