OT and IT converge at edge gateways enabled by new connectivity

Eddie Lee, the director of global industry marketing at Moxa, tells IoT Now how edge capabilities coupled with new connectivity is bringing operational technology together with IT to the benefit of factory floor performance

IoT Now: How are you seeing the convergence of operational technology (OT) and IT affecting the factory floor?

Eddie Lee: As Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industry 4.0 strategies continue to gain momentum, the importance of IT/OT convergence is increasing. This is because the relevant data to be analysed need to be connected to the enterprise platforms where the artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning can deliver meaningful insights. In other words, to deliver on the promise of the benefits of IIoT, the cloud platforms need access to the factory floor data. Consequently, OT personnel are faced with the task of providing these data without compromising production performance, safety and security. Managing traditional OT protocols and even isolated islands of automation is one thing. Delivering such equipment data to a cloudbased platform presents a completely new set of challenges and stakeholders to work with.

IoT Now: What challenges does this convergence represent to factory operators? Which area is the most complex for them to address?

EL: As mentioned earlier, cloud-based enterprise applications require ongoing data flows to and from the myriad of sensors, devices, assets and other equipment in the field. At first glance, this fundamental ability to enable access to the factory floor data is much easier said than done. For the cloud to utilise factory floor data, the challenge begins with protocols and network architectures. The architecture used with industrial ethernet or even legacy serial protocols that a majority of our customers have deployed is based on a polling architecture. This is well-suited for control systems and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) applications, however the cloud architecture is publish/subscribe or commonly referred to as pub/sub. This fundamental difference is an obstacle facing IT/OT convergence today.

Many IT system integrators are not familiar with OT protocols or polling architectures. Conversely, traditional control system integrators have limited experience with pub/sub architectures and protocols such as message queuing telemetry transport (MQTT) and advanced message queuing protocol (AMQP). As a result, the importance of the industrial network edge – where these two architectures meet, has gained increased significance and scrutiny in recent years. In fact, a relatively new category of communications hardware often referred to as IoT edge gateways has emerged to address this challenge. The primary purpose of these IoT edge gateways is to take the OT protocol data such as Modbus, ethernet/IP, Profinet and others, and convert them to be accessible in a cloud-friendly, pub/sub architecture.

Major IT technology vendors are also announcing new products and continued investments to help enable this connectivity. One example includes Microsoft’s recent re-organisation and plan to invest US$5bn over the next five years into IoT and cloud technologies. Microsoft’s new – released in June – Azure IoT Edge delivers Azure services to IIoT edge gateways and devices and helps to facilitate connecting factory floor data securely and reliably to the Azure Cloud. These products and services from IT vendors enable an opportunity for a more in-depth and technical discussion of the digital factory and IIoT with our manufacturing customers. Instead of talking about trends we can start to discuss how to architect and implement these new IT technologies while preserving the OT investment in existing sensors and programmable logic controllers (PLCs) they have in many brownfield deployments.

Furthermore, the aging workforce issues facing many manufacturing sectors coupled with the conservative or risk-adverse nature of manufacturing in general also complicate the adoption of newer disruptive technologies and trends brought forth by IIoT and Industry 4.0 initiatives. Hence wholesale changes and rip and replace options are unlikely in the near term. Numerous interim strategies for edge to cloud IIoT integration are relying on the IIoT edge gateway approach.

IoT Now: What are the popular applications being taken up that are enabled by the convergence of OT and IT coupled with new connectivity on the factory floor?

Eddie Lee,

EL: Most IIoT or Industry 4.0 applications require some form of IT/OT convergence in order to be successful. Therefore, some of the most popular applications being implemented today are ones which address current fundamental business needs. Remote monitoring and predictive maintenance top the list of applications we currently are seeing. With that said, we are also seeing three primary architectures (listed below) being utilised. These architectures cover areas beyond factory automation such as remote monitoring for oil and gas or renewable energy, however for our factory automation customers they are evaluating the path forward and have some foundational requirements

  1. They want to protect their investment in installed devices and existing industrial ethernetbased protocols.
  2. They are open to new trends with online SCADA delivered with a SaaS model, but are careful to update the SCADA infrastructure for large existing installations.
  3. They want to ensure that security and data ownership issues are addressed.

IoT Now: What future trends do you see emerging thanks to these developments?

EL: We foresee the continued trend of migrating cloud-based applications onto edge gateways and devices. As education, technology maturation and economies of scale reduce pricing obstacles, edge computing will continue to gain traction. The extension of ethernet networks and Linux and Windows operating systems into industrial automation architectures will also continue to contribute to this trend. Network infrastructure devices whose traditional role has been to primarily enable data connectivity are already currently adding computing power as well. I believe this is part of the natural evolution of the Internet of Things. Moxa is helping customers manage these complex IIoT advancements with products that meet customers’ OT deployment requirements and support existing infrastructure while embracing new IT pub/sub standards such as MQTT, AMQP and OPC-UA pub/sub.

IoT Now: What role in all of this is Moxa playing and how will you develop your business further?

EL: We have always provided industrial network and protocol connectivity to enable our customers to connect existing infrastructure, integrate legacy equipment into the architecture, and embrace new networking and protocol trends. The trend today is not about new OT industrial networks, but rather embracing new IT pub/sub protocols and we are in the perfect positions to enable connectivity for the Industrial IoT while preserving our customers’ investment and protecting their networks. Before IIoT, many would refer to Moxa’s core capabilities as simply M2M (machine to machine) communications. With the current proliferation of internet-enabled strategies, Moxa is simply extending our core competence further into the IT side of IT/OT integration. It’s a logical and natural evolution for our company and the industrial customers we have always served.


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