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Open systems and IIoT, working in tandem

Additional productivity gain through further systems integration is being limited by an installed base of proprietary technologies supplied by automation and information technology suppliers.

By Kevin Parker, CFE Media September 15, 2018

At considerable expense and tremendous toil, over the last 40 years, U.S. production assets were equipped for automated process control and information management. It’s worked out well. Yet what’s limiting additional productivity gain through further systems integration is this very same installed base of proprietary technologies supplied by automation and information technology suppliers. As these suppliers and their industrial clients seek further advances, they must bear in mind this installed base. "We live in a brownfield world," said Arlen Nipper, president and CEO of Cirrus Link Solutions, in a recent interview.

As technology advance continues, what constitutes a competitive advantage for these suppliers tends to shift. Distributed control systems (DCS) no longer entail custom chip sets, for example.

As Peter Martin, a Schneider Electric vice president, recently pointed out, the distributed control system (DCS) is increasingly modularized and software-centric. Yet for suppliers to agree on standards and specifications to ease systems interoperability and integration is difficult. Exhibit one is the Fieldbus standard. Suppliers and users labored for years, beginning in 1988, to forge an industrial network protocol to connect instrumentation and equipment at the process to local controllers, without total success.

Open systems redux

The open systems movement, beginning in the 1990s, promised interoperability on a grand scale. However, at first there were too many questions about open systems for them to find acceptance in industry, especially as it pertains to rigorous real-time control.

In the 21st century, however, more and more suppliers are making available the source code for their products. Independent governing bodies help insure integrity of open source efforts and defined development processes. Java EE, originally from Sun Microsystems and taken over by Oracle Corp. is now the Eclipse Foundation’s Jakarta EE, for example.

The Eclipse Foundation as a global community of individuals and organizations hosts a large community of active open source projects.

It’s gotten to the point where "open source software has become a dominant provider of critical infrastructure technology for the general software industry. The open model of development and royalty-free distribution has proven to be an effective way to build production quality software," according to a 2017 Eclipse Foundation white paper. 

IIoT unwrapped

In production industries, open systems have a special role in the on-going evolution by which proprietary operations technologies are being replaced by commercial information technologies. Already, by means of IIoT, process data is being shared by going around control systems.

"The DCS is the most expensive data route. Why push data through a proprietary technology?" said Don Bartusiek of Exxon Mobil. In emerging practice, for brownfield implementations, an IoT gateway is often introduced to aggregate the data from PLCs and deliver it to information technology systems.

Bartusiek also works with The Open Group, a consortium that promotes "the achievement of business objectives through technology standards."

Industrial operations have special needs for real-time control, apart from transactional computing systems. Rather than processing in the cloud, local data processing at the edge is required, including at the IoT gateway. A plethora of edge devices and computers are being introduced.

In the last 40 years, machine control, communication, and management has changed even as much as our individual desktops have. If industrial processes need distributed systems that are configurable and interoperable, open standards are required for the technical and semantic interchange of information.

Kevin Parker, senior contributing editor, CFE Media, kparker@cfemedia.com.

This article appears in the IIoT for Engineers supplement for Control Engineering and Plant Engineering

See other articles from the supplement below.