Technology Update: Automation appliances create interoperability

Machine to machine (M2M) and machine to enterprise (M2E) communications are required for most automated applications, as the Internet of Things and need for interoperability advance. Interoperability is often difficult to achieve and many solutions are crafted by manufacturing engineers and system integrators on a custom, instance-by-instance basis. Automation appliances can help by...

By Roy Kok, AutomationSMX January 3, 2011

Machine to machine (M2M) and machine to enterprise (M2E) communications is becoming a core requirement of every application in today’s highly integrated and performance driven world. This interoperability is often difficult to achieve and many solutions are crafted by manufacturing engineers and system integrators on a custom, instance-by-instance basis. This process is inefficient, time consuming, and very difficult to maintain. 

The main hurdles with any custom integration effort include:

  • Development of special knowledge, pressing the controls engineer to veer from core competencies in automation control to learn the nuances of software integration, computer setup, security management, and the integration of disparate pieces of software to achieve a certain result.
  • Greater importance of documentation to cover the transition of this custom solution to the next engineer who needs to manage it, as well as document the replacement process should any component of this solution fail in the future.
  • Compromised reliability: Every custom solution is a challenge to integrate. The result, when it works, can be excellent. On the other hand, while the solution is working, there may be security gaps, operational nuances that will lead to long-term failures. Testing of custom solutions is typically minimal and done in the field, after installation: Is your custom solution tested for memory leaks under all operating conditions—even the unexpected ones?
  • Cost: The hidden costs are surprising. All too often, the cost of a solution is based on the quick evaluation of the component prices, with a bit of system integration time added in.  By that measure, many custom systems may look very attractive compared with the purchase of standard component solutions. When there is a failure in the future, is the cost simply that of a component, or is the system integration time a recurring cost?  What is the length of your downtime and the associated cost?
  • Higher need for expertise: Rollout is more costly in a custom solution, and the expertise to help with rollouts on a parallel basis will be limited as opposed to leveraging standard, more widely supported products.

Custom solutions enable the ability to showcase ingenuity and breadth of skills, but they are rarely the most cost effective and reliable solution when commercial off the shelf (COTS) products are available to handle the task, even if COTS products have a higher initial cost. Total cost of ownership over the lifecycle of the application must be considered to make an informed decision. Appliances can help.

Appliances (no, not white goods) are special-built products, typically pre-integrated to perform a specific function. Or, from Wikipedia – A computer appliance is generally a separate and discrete hardware component specifically designed to provide a specific computing resource, and which often resides on a dedicated hardware platform. These devices became known as "appliances" because of their similarity to home appliances, which are generally "closed and sealed"—not serviceable by the owner. In computer appliances the hardware is also usually sealed and not repairable or upgradeable by the user.

Within the automation space, appliances fall into many categories. Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) are appliances. Single loop controllers (SLCs) are appliances, and their special functions are well known. Today, with the greater need for  machine and corporate level integration, there are a new host of M2M and M2E appliances on the market.

Smart Grid is driving the development of integration appliances. One example, available from CalAmp, is the “air traffic controller,” an appliance designed to communicate between automation systems and equipment, bridging them to newly developing “Smart Grid” protocols, either wired or wirelessly to govern energy use in utility systems.

Enterprise integration is driving development of appliance modules that can communicate with automation equipment and handle information transfers in a secure and interlocked fashion with enterprise data systems. Great care is taken to ensure reliability of every transaction. These appliances can reside in-rack or as an external module and offer a simple and reliable solution to a problem that has been handled by custom solutions in the past. One such solution, available from Online Development Corp., is called the EATM (Enterprise Appliance Transaction Module).

Device Integration, the connectivity from one machine to another, is being addressed by a number of companies with protocol appliances. ProSoft Technology offers a line of communication appliances used to enable M2M communications, over various protocols. Online Development also offers a Universal Gateway appliance that includes more than 100 Kepware drivers that can be configured to map data among protocols.

Security is perhaps the area that leverages the benefits of a “purpose built” appliance best where reliability, performance, and the attention to details in solution quality control are most important. Several vendors offer solutions in this area. Tofino is an industrial security appliance technology offering firewall and VPN security options. While software is readily available to perform some basic functions on standard PC Platforms, Tofino appliances offer industrially hardened specifications and a form factor designed to match related products. This appliance, like others, offers depth of experience and benefit over trying to roll-your-own.

Industrial Defender offers intrusion detection and management technologies in an appliance form, to secure your automation infrastructure from hackers and attackers. These products are designed for bulletproof operation and can be managed by experts (the appliances can come with Industrial Defender services) to ensure they deliver the intended services. Standardized appliances, with a component of layered services, provide a solution that adapts with the times and offers a higher degree of reliability and sophistication over custom solutions.

Industrial Defender Defense in Depth Solution

These appliance solutions can be “crafted” by any system integrator or end customer with readily available technologies, even free open source technologies. But the solutions will not deliver the depth of knowledge and long-term support that an appliance can deliver. The temptation to leverage one’s creative engineering juices to get the job done can be very hard to resist. Perhaps a focus on some basic questions will help to clarify the best path to take:

  1. Will the crafted solution be easy enough for a new engineer with standard domain knowledge to re-create or repair in the future – perhaps two years down the line when it fails on some idle Tuesday and nobody is around?  What is the possible cost of that downtime?
  2. Is the crafted solution integral to the security of the company and has it been fully tested for intended functionality and for  the various modes of operation it may encounter as time passes? Will it need incremental enhancements over time, and what are the costs associated with that?
  3. Are you equipped to perform the quality control needed in crafting a software solution?  Can you test for memory leaks? Can you test for proper thread and resource management?  Are you prepared to manage these possible risks as you develop a custom integrated solution? Is the initial quote for work a fixed price or a time-and-materials option that could spiral out of control?

In today’s lean and mean automation environments, the selection of pre-engineered appliances can be a more cost-effective solution when reviewing the total cost of ownership and considering the possible risks that can accompany a custom integrated solution, even with the integration of standard third-party software components on your own COTS hardware platform. – Online Development

Roy Kok, involved with the automation marketplace for more than 30 years, has worked with Intellution, GE, Kepware, and offers business development – sales and marketing consulting, through AutomationSMX.  Contact Roy(at) and

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Opto 22’s Opto Sensor is an energy monitoring and data acquisition appliance that lets commercial and industrial customers acquire power consumption data from facility systems, machines, equipment, and metering devices in real time and with minimal configuration.

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