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The top IIoT challenges facing operations

31 July 2018

John Fryer, Senior Director of Industry Solutions, Stratus Technologies looks at the IIoT challenges OT professionals must face.

Shutterstock image
Shutterstock image

To optimise processes, manufacturers have been leveraging the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to gather and analyse large amounts of data across the entire production chain for some time now. By doing this, many have quickly discovered the immense value that can be derived by pushing computing to the edge of the network. Some of this value comes from access to real-time insights that improve operational efficiencies, decision making and costs.

In fact, edge computing is gaining so much popularity that Gartner predicts that by 2021, 40 percent of enterprises will have an edge strategy in place, up from about 1 percent in 2017.

With the rise of IIoT and edge computing, the use of information technology (IT) at the operational level has become more prevalent, and the line between IT and operational technology (OT) is being blurred. As we see more convergence of IT and OT, OT professionals are being asked to support more complex environments and infrastructures. However, they usually do not have the necessary resources or experience needed to manage them, which has led to a number of challenges that today’s OT professionals must face and find ways to address.

Limited IT resources

Most OT specialists are not IT specialists, however they are still tasked with installing and supporting industrial automation systems, as well as finding forward-thinking technology solutions to keep their businesses current. This means that the need for dual IT/OT roles is larger than ever. We’re beginning to see the emergence of a new breed called the “hybrid OT” or “industrial IT” professional who bring a combined IT/OT perspective to the plant floor. With this skillset, they are able to appropriately manage optimised IIoT operations.

The issue of limited or no available IT resources on-site at plants becomes especially heighted with the introduction of edge computing, as most of these deployments are located in remote areas that are not easy to access. Solutions that OT professionals are able to “set and forget” and that are operationally simple will be of paramount importance here.

Complex environments & virtualisation

OT professionals also face challenges regarding the complexity surrounding the plant-automation environments where they work. They must navigate different workstation classes for workers, separate networks for process control and plant management, and standalone servers for production applications, among others. 

These configurations can be difficult. For example, if each application is run on individual servers, it may result in many wasted processing resources. Not to mention, the high-cost ownership of various application licenses culminates in a generally inefficient process. By virtualising servers onto a single platform, OT professionals can reap many benefits. These include reducing server sprawl, simplified diagnosis and repair, reduced systems management workload, improved scalability and lower infrastructure costs, to name a few.

Many industrial automation companies are leveraging virtualisation as a foundation technology to set their organisations up for success when it comes to IIoT readiness. While it is clear virtualisation provides many positive improvements, it can also come with several risks. If multiple applications are running on one platform, that one platform’s reliability becomes critical.

If one virtualised server goes down, so will all of the various applications it supports. This is a huge risk to OT professionals, whose responsibility is keeping production lines up and running no matter what. It is imperative that virtualised servers are fault-tolerant and highly reliable. This takes some of the fear out of the equation for these OT professionals.

As IIoT and edge computing continue to gain popularity across the industry, the challenges increase as well. Luckily for OT professionals, there are some easy requirements to address when looking for solutions that can help ease these issues. Making sure OT has access to solutions and systems that are self-protecting, self-diagnosing, always available, and easily maintained and serviced will be the key to IIoT success at the edge.

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