The golden rules for ensuring IoT availability
Published: 09 February, 2017
The Internet of Things (IoT) has the power to revolutionise industrial processes for the better, but there are plenty of pitfalls that will need to be avoided. Safeguards can help us navigate this new landscape. Andy Bailey, solutions architect, Stratus, reports.
The IoT is already making waves in consumer electronics, but its application to industrial process understandably receives less of the public’s attention. Despite the relative lack of coverage, few informed observers are in any doubt that it is in industry that IoT technology can make the biggest difference. And whereas the consumer applications of this revolutionary technology are still very much in their infancy, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is already transforming the way manufacturers are doing business. No longer just hype, the IIoT is harnessing the power of next-generation sensors and big data to optimize processes in an ever-increasing range of industries.
As it stands, the limiting factor to uptake of IIoT solutions is operator confidence in the reliability of the technology. Operators with always-on requirements need to know that “on” really does means “on”, since in many cases even the briefest “off” can cause real damage to the business. Such is the nature of true interconnectivity. I believe that there are three primary considerations that decision-makers must take into account when decision-makers are navigating the transition to a fully-integrated IIoT system.
1. Virtualisation adds vulnerability to a system
Virtualisation has already made a huge impact on how connected enterprises operate, and the benefits to successful implementation of the technology are clear. Greater efficiency a decrease in costs – irresistible for a competitive outfit. By drawing together various applications onto one platform, we see reductions in energy consumption, hardware expenditure, rack space and maintenance.
• Nevertheless, virtualisation is subject to the same flaws as any other move towards centralisation. The gains in efficiency are partially offset by a concomitant increase in the vulnerability of the system – eggs and baskets, in other words. The extent of the increase in vulnerability is determined by the design of the system as well as external factors, so intelligent design makes all the difference in the success or failure of an IIoT implementation. There are two primary external factors for the designer to consider, and they are the need for:
i. User-friendly interfaces: Regardless of the complexity of the system itself, the end user is unlikely to be a trained software engineering and the design of the system must reflect this in order to be operable.
ii. Always-on capability: The virtual platform must have the resilience to continue functioning even when parts of the system are not at 100%. Downtime can have significant ramifications not just for the efficiency of the enterprise but for its ability to comply with its legal ramifications.
2. Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) are not the same
OT and IT are both fundamental to the interconnected enterprise but are very different in nature. The rarefied environment of server banks and data exchanges, sealed off from the elements and diligently tended to by an army of highly qualified technicians, is quintessential IT. OT is quite different, operating by definition at the frontier between the digital and physical realms. This often entails platforms based in challenging environments that simultaneously impose stresses on the system while making close supervision impossible. Even installations that use some degree of virtualisation to maintain a higher proportion of up-time, like oil pipelines, are vulnerable to natural forces and unforeseen problems.
The solution to this is to engineer the system to be as centralized and simple as possible, with a single virtualized server. Designed specifically for its environment, the system would provide uninterrupted service and actually require less space whilst providing engineers with the opportunity to maintain the system remotely. Sending technicians out to isolated locations to perform work that can now be performed remotely is a clear example of something that the IIoT can help to minimise. Simple, compact and flexible – these are the three ingredients of a well-constructed and reliable platform.
3. How much downtime can the enterprise handle?
Different businesses have different tolerances for downtime, and some business applications are more important than others. An afternoon without the email system may be an inconvenience for an SME, while a momentary failure of a single packaging line in a larger organization could make all the difference at year end. Service interruptions affecting human safety are more significant still. How you build your system should depend on careful calculations about what your enterprise’s tolerance is for disruption.
IIoT systems are highly complex by their very nature. When they are working, they are capable of performing feats that would have been considered miraculous just a few years ago, conversely, they are more than capable of causing a few headaches when they are under-optimised. For this reason, the implementation of an IIoT project is something that requires input from across the entire business – not just from the accountants. Any system you choose to implement should be not only cost-effective but robust enough for your company’s needs. Done properly, it may well be the best investment you ever make.
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