Mixed models to persist at IT/OT interface

As cloud standards gain currency, OPC bridges past and future

By Steve Kuehn

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“Instead of starting with the standard and building up, the technology allows you to tackle your problem top-down.” Mark Carrier of National Oilwell Varco on the improved capabilities of today’s IIoT middleware solutions.

While much has been written of the ongoing convergence of the industrial information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) domains, there remains at this interface an array of standards and models for application integration originally developed on both sides of the divide. On the one hand are data-centric middleware platforms based on such standards as DDS; on the other are platforms based largely on OPC UA, the data interoperability standard developed to bring order to the industrial automation space.

Indeed, one rare point of consensus among industry practitioners convened for a panel discussion at the Smart Industry 2015 conference in Chicago is that heterogeneity of standards and models at this intersection is likely to persist for some time to come, and there will be plenty of room and need for both approaches in tomorrow’s industrial Internet of things (IIoT) architectures.

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“Finding the right tools to fit” is a challenge, noted Scott Masker, business system engineer for fastener manufacturer MacLean-Fogg, adding that a single tool will seldom meet all of one’s needs. “It’s still going to be piecemeal with a lot of different technologies,” he said. “It’s not just one standard that’s going to rule them all.”

Joining Masker on the panel were his colleague and application developer Chris Misztur as well as David Barnett, vice president, products and markets for integration platform developer RTI; Mark Carrier, systems architect for National Oilwell Varco; and Tony Paine, CEO of platform developer and integrator Kepware. More details on the MacLean-Fogg project are in the sidebar article below.

Real-time distributed data

Real Time Innovators (RTI) provides a connectivity platform called Connext, which is built on DDS. According to Barnett, the DDS standard provides a way to distribute and share real-time data across Internet-based systems. “So it’s used to distribute data from sensors to applications that do real-time control, or perhaps to a data analytics application in the cloud,” noted Barnett in his opening remarks.

Carrier, chief system architect for National Oilwell Varco’s operational networks, explained that his company manufactures large pieces of drilling equipment and make pretty much everything that “drills holes in the ground” ranging from drills and derricks to oil field production technologies and services. The company has recently invested $100 million to develop next-generation process automation platforms designed to help deal with the growing knowledge gap between the wave of retiring oilfield workers and the less seasoned employees replacing them. The company settled on DDS to provide the data-centric communications infrastructure among system components.

Enterprise-wide interoperability

Like Carrier, MacLean-Fogg’s Masker and Misztur are responsible for connecting their enterprise business and operational/production systems. To get a handle on a diversity of production equipment complicated by a legacy of company acquisitions, Masker and Misztur rely on Kepware’s platform to help them close gaps and achieve the integration MacLean-Fogg’s leadership understands it needs for continued business success.

Kepware’s Paine explained MacLean-Fogg has deployed his company’s KEPServerEX platform that “genericizes access and control to a wide variety of systems and applications you’re going to find in an industrial setting. These things could be devices. They could be applications. They could be the infrastructure that ties the things together,” said Paine, noting that Kepware can pull almost anything on to its platform with the 200-plus protocols and standards it supports.

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With Kepware, Masker said that MacLean-Fogg had found the hub they needed to facilitate communication between the company’s industrial and business networks. “The industrial Internet of things (IIoT) is where the worlds of manufacturing-specific protocols and cloud communications protocols are really coming together,” added Kepware’s Paine.

Paine said companies continue to purchase disparate systems, and now they’re getting them to work together. “They’re doing it through hardware and networking, and then they want to be able to tie into a bank of applications for visualization and reporting,” said Paine.

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