Many earliest integration efforts designed to connect machines with machines over the public internet and telecommunications infrastructure relied on one-to-one connections and one-off development efforts. That worked fine for a relatively simple connection to a handful of devices. But as the numbers of machines and desired functionality grew, many early developers found they faced an increasingly unmanageable situation.
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Such challenges around scalability—together with the desire to help businesses get to market with applications more quickly—have led a diverse variety of technology suppliers to develop software and services designed to streamline implementation and management of such applications.
At the highest level, these include providers of cloud infrastructure, enterprise software and telecommunication services. But an array of IoT infrastructure specialists also has emerged to provide packaged functionality for the IoT, some of them specifically tailored for the industrial marketplace. For the most part, they build upon the public internet and telecommunications infrastructure, using technology such as VPNs or lightweight open protocols such as DDS, MMQT, or AMQP to securely connect devices with one another and with cloud-based services and applications.
The rise of the industrial ISP
Some Industrial IoT (IIoT) specialists, such as Ei3 Technology, eWON and Skkynet, have focused on building out end-to-end network connectivity and cloud-based environments designed to help industrial end users and machine builders to more readily connect with and manage distributed fleets of assets. GE Intelligent Platforms, for example, recently joined the fray with its Equipment Insights offering and already serves a growing number of large, small and medium-sized machine builders through this subscription-based service. Based on GE’s more broadly focused Predix platform, Equipment Insights is designed to collect and manage long-term data trends on individual machines—or global fleets of them—delivering pre-configured, role-specific key-performance indicators (KPIs) and alarms to personnel, including mobile operators and field service personnel.
“Today it’s not about technical feasibility, it’s about economic feasibility at scale,” notes Bernie Anger, general manager for GE Intelligent Platforms’ Control Solutions & Embedded business. “Companies need something that works, not building blocks.” Anger anticipates the rise of a growing number of what he calls “industrial internet service providers (IISPs),” that provide all the infrastructure and services needed, all the way from edge to cloud. “It’s very easy to step into information overload if this is not done correctly,” Anger notes. “Your IISP will have pre-solved many of these issues.”
Industrial automation suppliers also are creating new IIoT cloud services to complement their hardware and software with the intent of helping their customers to get to market with cloud solutions more quickly. Advantech, for example, has developed its WISE-Cloud (for Wireless IoT Sensing Embedded) to provide IoT platform-as-a-service (PaaS) capabilities to the many systems integrators that rely on Advantech products. “IoT solution developers can rapidly build and deploy applications, or expand cloud applications into software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications, ensuring faster time to market,” says Albert Huang, vice president of Advantech’s industrial automation group.
Data at the center
Other IoT platform providers address the needs of industrial users by ensuring secure and deterministic data flows directly among connected devices and cloud applications. Centralized device management is another key deliverable of these more generally applicable platforms. “We don’t really talk much about the protocols,” says Stan Schneider, CEO of RTI, a supplier of IoT connectivity platforms. “It’s all about the data.”
Indeed, leveraging a distributed “data bus” architecture based on the DDS standard, RTI, a high-performance networking company and supplier of IoT infrastructure services, has solved the technical challenges required to coordinate large, real-time distributed systems, such as for air traffic control and for autonomous vehicles. “One of the key challenges facing the IoT community today is the integration of intelligent systems, including the ability to plug-and-play systems from different suppliers,” Schneider says.
“Technology is not the problem, it’s a corporate-wide infrastructure problem,” adds Steve Jennis, senior vice president, corporate development, for PrismTech, another provider of IoT platforms. “It’s a new way of thinking,” Jennis says, attributing many historical integration problems to an application-centric view of the world. “The data is the key asset, not the application. Whether new devices, legacy devices or cloud applications, they’re all end points of a publish-and-send,” Jennis explains. “They’re all glued together by a data backbone. The value of the IIoT is ubiquitous data access, it’s about enabling cross-domain integration.”
IoT is evolving beyond an enterprise bolt-on, and will now be the enterprise backbone, Jennis predicts. “All of the cost drivers are pushing that way. IoT now brings corporate-wide data accessibility on demand. Companies can readily add new services that align their offer with what their customers need.”