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Preparing for an ‘always-on’ world

Author : Paige West is Editor of Design, Products & Applications

05 May 2017

Awareness of the value of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is spreading but there’s still a lot of information to digest. Now, companies need to learn how to apply this awareness to their business strategy.

I sat down with Jason Andersen, Vice President, Business Line Management at Stratus Technologies, to discuss the progression of the IIoT and what issues might be expected to arise in the future.

The four I’s of IIoT

IIoT is in the minds of just about everyone working in industry but the adoption of it is still in its infancy and most businesses have little understanding of their current situation. 

Stratus Technologies refer to four stages that allow companies to measure their current level of automation; the four I’s of IIoT.

1. Informed – at this stage you’re already utilising your traditional supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), human-machine interface (HMI) and historian database solutions. Many industry analysts believe the evolution of these technologies will naturally support the adoption of IIoT.
2. Insight – now we see the addition of analytics. Companies can now analyse the data captured across the entire production value chain and start using it to optimise processes. 
3. Intelligent – once you’ve completed the above step, you can start to make real time, intelligent decisions. 
4. Invisible – this is the part where artificial intelligence comes into play. Your systems are now able to identify and fix problems without human intervention.

Each step represents an increase in the level of machine-based automation and as businesses progress through these stages, there becomes a need to treat things more critically. The criticality of analytics and real-time processes means that 100 percent availability at the edge is a must for optimal operations and decision-making. 

This year, industrial automation became the number one market segment for Stratus Technologies, who can provide a baseline to help companies move through their IIoT journey.

Going forward with IIoT

As we head into the future of IIoT, technology, solutions and the way people operate will change. Jason Andersen offers his opinion and dispels some myths on what these might be. 

Datacentre solutions:
According to the market research firm Gartner, the IIoT will force enterprise datacentre operators to rethink the way they manage capacity across all layers of the IT stack. At the moment there is a massive drive to apply existing IT datacentre technology to the edge. Andersen feels this isn’t going to work. It’s too complicated, potentially too expensive and it doesn’t have the capacity to take on all the new requirements. 

A lot of the solutions currently on the market are not up to the task, long term. IIoT gateways, for example, are ideal for point solutions but long term it needs to go in a different direction. People are purchasing little gateways for £1,000’s and all they are doing is replacing the inadequate hardware they have and not thinking ahead.

The OT/IT convergence:
Human dynamics will be one of the biggest issues going forward into the IIoT. The UK has a large generation of engineers that are facing retirement, who probably won’t want to see disruption to their current working environment, and a lack of skilled, young engineers to take their place.

The other issue involves the alignment of the operations technology (OT) and information technology (IT) part of the business. Currently, there is a general feeling that they are at odds. For OT, stability and reliability are crucial and it often adopts the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ policy. IT is generally more comfortable with change as servers and software are updated all the time.

The IIoT presents an opportunity for OT and IT to overcome their differences and achieve common goals. To a certain extent, this is possible but this has been in discussion for a long time and has yet to happen. 

For this to be a success, somebody’s job has got to change and Andersen predicts it won’t be the IT person. Through every technology innovation of the last 25 years, IT has fought it and remained consistent and IIoT will be no different. This means the OT person will be the one to learn new skills and adopt new techniques and technologies, ultimately changing the balance of power between IT and OT. It’s not about IT/OT convergence, it’s about the redistribution of skills. Stratus Technologies’ mission is to empower those people and help them do their job more effectively.

Next generation architecture:
Security is currently the biggest hindrance in the IIoT world but eventually there will be practices in place that will help keep infrastructure as secure as possible. 

After security, Andersen believes people will start to get serious about what the next-generation architecture needs to look like. It will be new architecture, not likely to be a simple replacement of the old. Thinking about what the right combination of hardware and software to deploy for a truly next-generation edge is where Andersen has Stratus Technologies focused. 

When looking at the four I’s of IIoT, we are all still in the early stages. Keeping pace with industry demands will take time and investment but ultimately, it will increase efficiency and reduce costs. The sooner companies take the first step, the sooner the benefits of the IIoT can be reaped.

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