Power of the Cloud

Cloud computing is everywhere, including manufacturing! This latest computing craze may seem like just another buzzword, but “the cloud” and its advanced computing technologies are here to stay, holding a stockpile of benefits, few downsides, and the promise to give industry untold opportunities to do more and better business more profitably.

By Jeanine Katzel December 16, 2011

Have you noticed? It’s getting cloudy. Just about anywhere you turn today, the cloud is there. Maybe not in the sky, but it is there…on the radio, in the paper, in the news, and in manufacturing. This cloud, however, has nothing to do with the weather and everything to do with the advanced computing technologies already permeating the consumer space—and now poised to capture the manufacturing market as well.

Powerful and ubiquitous, cloud computing is an Internet-enabled technology that can reside virtually anywhere. The end user does not have to own it. If a facility decides to redesign a product and its engineering department moves to build a prototype, it may take months to purchase, install, and commission the additional computer services for the task. But in the cloud, these tasks can be procured and configured in minutes. And, if managed properly, they will cost less.

Using the cloud, facilities can accommodate operational spikes more easily, procuring computer resources when needed—and only when needed. The cloud elastically grows and shrinks with demand. More importantly, the customer pays only for what is used. Laden with the need to manage huge volumes of data for and from processes and machinery, industry already knows the advantages of being able to share and access information. Thanks to the cloud, it can improve data management even further and move performance and profitability to a level once thought impossible.

The cloud is an environment well suited for manufacturing, whose computing needs Steve Harriman, senior vice president of marketing, ScienceLogic, terms as “often lumpy.” When a facility or department begins a new project, he said, “The focus is on design engineering software. Then as they ramp up that effort, they move to a computer-aided-manufacturing phase, a machine programming phase, and then into production. Because of the ease with which a cloud-based IT infrastructure can be provisioned up and down as needed, it can easily handle those kinds of tasks and purposes.”

What in the world is the cloud?

So how does this phenomenon with the funny name work? Well, first of all, it’s not so much new technology as a reconfiguration of current technology. The cloud is innovative in terms of the infrastructure and architecture it uses to make a multitude of computing resources look dynamic to the outside world.

“The cloud can provision an entire computer to your facility, and then de-provision it when you are done with it,” said Rick Kuhlman, FPGA software architectures senior product manager, National Instruments. “Cloud providers enable users to rent processors or RAM or storage that is completely configurable. The back end looks like big banks of computers, but on the front end users are constantly configuring them to do exactly what they need to do at the time they need to do it. It is hardware you don’t have to purchase.”

The cloud has some very specific characteristics. It can be public or private. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines it as “a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimum maintenance, effort, or service provider interaction.”

“Configuration and utilization are key,” said Kuhlman. “Done correctly, the cloud can change and dynamically move to exactly where you need it to be. The cloud grew out of mainframe and networking technologies. The concept is one of taking the potential of multiple computers and linking them through the Internet to do more easily a task that was difficult or impossible to do on a single computer.”

Most importantly, the cloud:

  • Is available on demand. Like the Internet, it can be accessed quickly from anywhere there is a network connection.
  • Is a shared pool of resources that can be brought on- and offline dynamically
  • Allows dynamic provisioning of those shared resources.

Think of the cloud as a utility, said Science Logic’s Harriman. “Cloud services let you ‘turn on the lights’ or ‘power an appliance’ without needing to run the power company,” he explained. “A utility generates power using a variety of resources. Similarly, cloud computing offers all kinds of computing resources. In a sense, it becomes just another utility.”

Rob McGreevy, vice president, platform and applications at Invensys Operations Management, echoed the analogy: “You can almost switch cloud services on and off like an appliance. It offers many benefits. Most obvious is the avoidance of capital expenditures for hardware, software, and even services because you have shared infrastructure costs. And it increases the number of applications that can be adopted quickly because there is no need to go through a huge capital process.”

More than a hard drive in the sky

Although admittedly a fledgling technology, the cloud is well beyond a concept or a theory. It is technology replete with a growing stable of concrete applications. It can be used as a repository or a hard drive in the sky, but more than online services or remote servers, the cloud is a new operating system. “You have access to a whole new set of services against which you can write software,” explained McGreevy. “Microsoft, Google, and others are re-architecting their operating systems and rebuilding them around the cloud infrastructure to take advantage of shared services, storage, and computing power. It’s not just about storage, though. It’s about new capabilities and new software applications.”

Uses for cloud technology are increasing continually. Currently, however, NI’s Kuhlman sees the cloud active in manufacturing and engineering in three areas: data clouds, software in the cloud, and computational cloud power.

  • Data clouds: “Biggest use for the cloud at this point,” said Kuhlman, “is for data management, which is basically the ability to establish interfaces to a server in the cloud to be able to put data in and take data out from anywhere in the world. A company might take vibration, control, and supervisory data from a machine and push the information into the cloud so that whoever needs to can visualize those data in all sorts of ways from anywhere in the world without standing next to that machine.”
  • Software in the cloud: The cloud also can make available to virtually anyone software that resides somewhere other than where it is being used. End users can access programs through any Internet-enabled device, but the software runs in the cloud. Running software in the cloud is gaining momentum as cloud-based service providers such as Microsoft (microsoft.com) and Salesforce.com enter the market, and engineering companies like SolidWorks (solidworks.com) put resources into the cloud to simplify collaboration on designs.
  • Computational power: The cloud also facilitates complex computations. “If you have to process a difficult algorithm and you have multiple processors dynamically available,” said Kuhlman, “you can solve the equation much faster than with a single computer.” For example, NI has a cloud-based computational server that speeds significantly the time it takes to compile an FPGA (field programmable gate array) program, a highly complex function that can take hours. “Running this algorithm in a cloud environment can significantly reduce the time for one compile by using an extra large computer instance or allowing multiple compilations in parallel across many computers.”

“We see the cloud as a natural extension of the applications we’re building today,” added Invensys’ McGreevy. “In the near-term, virtualization, configuration management, and reporting and information analyses are all good candidates for cloud technologies. We have a cloud-based application that makes process/production information available on mobile devices. In the long term, we are looking at moving execution capabilities of some systems to the cloud, but that is down the road.”

Benefits trump challenges

Given its inherent economic agility to provision and de-provision computing resources quickly and in a timely way, and support ever-changing business needs, cloud computing offers manufacturing many benefits. It can boost U.S. manufacturing by enabling more production with less expertise, effort, and expense and by lowering the barrier for applications. For instance, cloud services can help with staging.

“When a project rolls out, it is common to stage or simulate 100 different workstations,” said McGreevy. “Outside the cloud, that might mean buying 50 servers or 100 workstations and setting up a large physical staging area. Within the cloud, computer resources can be allocated without having to purchase or procure those physical assets. Or consider corporate standards enforcement for things like configuring HMI screens or control loops,” he continued. “These standards are pushed out to all plants but may not be managed effectively. Using cloud technology helps keep global standards management on track. Corporate teams define standards, which live in the cloud. Remote sites, even partners and system integrators, consult the cloud repository for current information.”

Of course, cautions remain. Reliability and security are concerns. Any time resources are not close at hand, some control is relinquished. When using the cloud, facilities must ensure performance of the application or services is at acceptable levels. And when a job is complete, they must ensure the housekeeping is done. “It is easy to provision resources in the cloud,” said ScienceLogic’s Harriman. “But if you don’t close your account, you will still be paying the bill.”

There are also challenges for engineering and IT as they manage cloud-based resources. Roles on both sides are changing, and the cloud may be disruptive as infrastructures are hosted elsewhere. Further, the divide between classic manufacturing engineering and classic IT is disappearing. “The cloud may add complexity to the engineering/IT relationship,” said McGreevy, “but it also lets manufacturing operations access new technologies that they couldn’t access previously. It will make sense to host some applications in a cloud, but it also may make sense to keep others on premises.”

Clearly a cloud-filled future

Cloud technology has few downsides. “You can put just about any application you want in the cloud,” said Jeremy Sherwood, cloud and virtualization product manager, ScienceLogic.

“However, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Does it make sense financially? How far to take the cloud might be more of a business decision than a technological one.”

The end user appears to be driving the cloud. Although certainly not infinite, the structure of the cloud is such that whenever users have sought to do more or to store more in the cloud, the resources and services have been dynamically there to accommodate them. Steve Harriman’s view of the future extends so far as to include what he calls “cloud bursting,” the ability to have services running in one or more clouds, and almost instantly burst into another should a sudden demand for more capacity occur. “But for that to happen,” he said, “certain standards will need to be in place. Clouds will have to be able to talk to one another.”

Cloud technology is still emerging. Although ANSI standards are being developed, they are still in their infancy, as are many elements of the cloud. The key is learning to apply the right technology to the right situation. The cloud reduces costs and complexity, but it shouldn’t be used just because everyone else is using it. Manufacturing needs to define its problems and then determine if and how the cloud can help. It has enormous capability—now and for the future. And unquestionably, it is here to stay.

Security and reliability: Elephants in the room

Two areas of concern surround cloud-based technologies: reliability and security. “They are the elephants in the room,” said Rob McGreevy, vice president, platform and applications, Invensys Operations Management. “Because of the nature of industrial manufacturing, we need to keep applications, especially critical control applications, close at hand. With the cloud, the reliability is just not there yet for running a critical controller or safety system that needs to respond in milliseconds. Right now it is better suited for information and reporting applications than critical control.”

Security also remains a concern, although most experts agree cloud-based activities are as secure as any other Internet exchange. Everyone knows the risks, but everyone also knows a reasonable amount of security is in place. “We’ve trusted our financial data to the Internet for quite some time now,” said Rick Kuhlman, FPGA software architectures senior product manager, National Instruments. “We do it because financial institutions give reasonable assurance that they’ve invested in security technology, encryption, and an IT infrastructure that keep data safe. Of course, a breach of a system and misuse of the information is possible, just as it is possible to break into someone’s trash and steal his identity.”

Those who use cloud-based technologies understand how security in the cloud works. It is technology in which IT professionals and software web architects constantly ensure high security. “The cloud can be your IT expert,” said Jeremy Sherwood, cloud and virtualization product manager, ScienceLogic. “The core business of manufacturing is producing and delivering a product. Instead of supporting a staff to maintain and secure the computing infrastructure of your business, you push that capability to a cloud provider whose business it is to focus on that infrastructure. The result is enhanced reliability and security because you are making use of expertise beyond what you might reasonably expect to have in-house.”

Despite these concerns, the benefits of the cloud nearly always outweigh the problems. “If someone says their cloud services carry no security risks…well, that’s simply not true,” said Kuhlman. “All you can do is be reasonably assured by industry standards that security is in place. And the capability for security certainly is there. The risk varies with the sensitivity of the data and programs being used, and every situation should be evaluated individually.”

Jeanine Katzel is a contributing editor to Control Engineering. Reach her at jkatzel@sbcglobal.net.

This is one of two December Control Engineering cover stories. Also see:

Cloud Computing for SCADA

Related articles (click links for each, at bottom of page):

How secure is the cloud?

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Types of clouds

How the cloud adds efficiency

Cloud-based technology apps