The hype surrounding the Internet of Things (IoT) may be obscuring a more radical change in the way computers and communication technologies affect our lives—the emergence of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
Much of the discussion of the IoT has been about the services that become possible once you connect tens of billions of consumer devices to central servers that can capture, analyze and act upon the data they produce. The IIoT, on the other hand, is about connecting all aspects of industry, from production-line sensors to enterprise resource planning systems, to make it more flexible, agile and responsive.
Standards are emerging for integrating IoT devices in markets such as home automation, often from a (fairly) blank slate. In industry, though, much of the equipment used in production is proprietary, locking customers into the vendor’s ecosystem. This reduces users’ choices, and makes it more difficult for the resultant systems to inter-operate with other equipment from other vendors. Proprietary systems can also be expensive to buy and run, and slow to evolve because the hardware is built in lower volumes than say commercial servers.
A software-defined infrastructure may also be easier to secure than custom platforms, since it can draw on all the work already done to secure cloud-computing systems
The Open Platform Communications standard, developed in the 1990s, addresses some of these issues. As systems become more interconnected, though, device and data security becomes much more important. Developing the necessary layered security architecture may be outside the skills base of proprietary equipment vendors.
The telecoms sector has already addressed this issue. Telecoms equipment vendors got together to create interoperable solutions based on standard servers — an approach called network functions virtualization (NFV). Many network functions then evolved into software running on these servers, saving operators money, improving their choices and boosting interoperability.
The same is now happening in industrial automation, with the emergence of a software-defined infrastructure for the IIoT. The idea is to consolidate operations and control functions into software running on servers with the performance necessary to run real-time control algorithms.
This approach, using open standards and open platforms, should cut both operating and capital expenditure. It should make it easier to develop interoperable components, and to turn what were hard-wired functions into software that can be treated as components, making it easier to move between servers or re-use.
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