The Case for Wireless Standards Convergence

Should end users care if wireless standards for field devices come together? One user offers his thoughts.

August 25, 2010

Editor’s note: The two leading wireless-standard contenders for field instrumentation at the moment are WirelessHART and ISA100.11a, and there are efforts to converge the two standards into one. Given that there are many other types of networking standards where competing platforms exist side by side, why should a user care about this particular battle?

Herman Storey, retired from Shell Global Solutions and now an independent process industry consultant, offers his thoughts on the importance of this convergence effort for end users. He explains why those discussions should carry on and includes some potentially controversial views about the process of standards formation and what a potential user should consider about wireless deployments.

Why should end users want convergence and interoperability in wireless subsystems?

This discussion is divided into three sections that are different views of the subject. The sections deal with risk management, opportunities, and unfinished work. These issues are of strategic importance for user acceptance of wireless technology. The strategic factors are vastly more important to users than the tactical installation costs savings that are claimed for sensor mesh technology.

1. Risk, stability, and permanence

Problem: Vendors, products, and proprietary technologies come and go relatively quickly. Their lifecycle is much shorter than the lifetime of applications in process industries. Users are forced by this lifecycle disparity to deal with unsupported technologies and equipment that must have significant reengineering of applications to simply maintain reliable functionality and support ongoing operations.

Proprietary technologies limit users’ abilities to select the best system, the best field equipment for an application, and the best integration of system and field equipment with reasonable engineering cost. Proprietary technologies may offer attractive features when working in a single vendor environment, but the down side of these features is their lack of general applicability and permanence.

Users want interoperable standards-based products and systems. Interoperability needs a significant amount of support, but the payoff is improved risk management for vendors and users. Users are now demanding interoperable solutions (the ability to freely mix vendors) for industrial wireless technologies.

The current mix of wireless standards (none of which are consensus standards) with proprietary extensions do not meet user requirements for standardization and interoperability.

Solution: Consensus standards coupled with well-organized support organizations provide the solutions to users’ needs for risk management, permanence, and interoperability. There is no good alternative to this combination.

Consensus standards provide for broad input from many market sectors from both the vendor and user communities. Support organizations provide for services needed to assure conformance to the standards, feedback on gaps or errors in the standards, and the continuous improvement needed to assure quality solutions.

Why don’t we have consensus?

Consensus standards could theoretically be done in an open standards organization or in a support organization. More often than not, it happens in neither type of organization, and it does not matter which organizations name is on the standard. When consensus is achieved, the world is a better place.

Consensus standards organizations must invite everyone to participate. Everyone brings preconceived solutions to the problem at hand. Often these people tend to form groups that break into open competition for dominance, battle lines are drawn, lose-lose battles are fought, and casualties include innocent bystanders. To resolve issues, open standards organizations resort to votes which do not resolve the issues. The losing side has no reason to admit defeat and continues to fight a battle of attrition. A published standard does not necessarily represent a consensus.

Support organizations (foundations) have a slightly different problem. They are usually dominated by one vendor or a small group of vendors. They charge significant fees to support all of the services they must provide – which excludes wide participation. They can shut down opposition fairly quickly and produce a product, but that in no way assures that the product will achieve consensus status in the market place.

Work processes that provide consensus are readily available, but almost impossible to enforce. Forcing consensus is actually discouraged by common legal systems. Non-consensus standards are a normal consequence. Users of industrial control systems and equipment have reacted to this with a mixture of apathy, confusion, and outrage. Human nature trumps common good again and again. Wireless technology is no exception.

2. Opportunities

Sensor mesh technology provides a cost savings opportunity to do applications without wires that otherwise could be done with wires. A few mobile applications have been identified, but these seem to be in a minority. For the most part, sensor mesh represents a tactical means of saving installed cost. However, lifecycle cost savings are dependent on several factors including stability of the technology, field maintenance requirements, infrastructure cost and standardization, and continuous improvement support with a migration path.

Backhaul technology offers new strategic opportunities for mobile applications – especially for mobile workers. It can also provide common and standardized infrastructure for sensor mesh support. Many users see a larger strategic opportunity in backhaul technology while many vendors see a bigger strategic opportunity (product and revenue volume) for sensor mesh technology. User and vendor priorities are different on more than one level.

Backhaul technology is now being developed in a joint effort between an open standards organization (ISA) and a specifications and support organization (Fieldbus Foundation).  This experimental organizational mix seems to be producing the best of both worlds and is making good progress. This effort will provide support for multiple wired and wireless field networks and common architectural support missing from these field networks.

3. Unfinished business

We don’t have consensus standards in industrial communications. Users have long accepted this condition in the wired world. This is partly because no wired communication protocol is optimum for all applications. Diversity thrives in the wired world.

This same level of diversity is a major threat to achieving application lifecycle cost savings in the wireless world. Users are pushing for reconciliation between competing groups. Reconciliation (convergence) will lower costs and risks for vendors and users in the long run, but will add costs in the short term. Convergence at the sensor mesh level needs a continued push from users to drive the process to a successful conclusion. The organizations are being formed to achieve this goal, but we are closer to the start than the finish. It would be all too easy to give up and accept the status quo.

The standards that currently exist provide an incomplete architecture and assurance of proper host integration. There is too much proprietary content to current implementations. A push for standardized backhaul technology with a more complete architecture and wider scope of standardization will be good for everyone.

Convergence of industrial wireless standards will be a win for everybody. Users’ interests would be well served by their engagement rather than their apathy.

Herman Storey
Herman Storey Consulting, LLC
August 20, 2010