Exponential IT/OT convergence will change industry

March 7, 2017
It’s not so much an opportunity, but rather a requirement that we embrace existing legacy equipment.

During the Smart Industry webinar “Marrying 

Cirrus Link Solutions President and CTO Arlen Nipper

IT & OT: Equipping Legacy Infrastructure for the IIoT,” Arlen Nipper shared his expertise on convergence. (He’s co-presented with Magnetrol’s Kenny Heidel.)

Today the president and CTO of Cirrus Link Solutions shares with us his thoughts on the proper use of SCADA, embracing legacy systems and capitalizing on the unique skills of the young workforce. Take a look…

Smart Industry: Why does IT/OT convergence pose such a challenge? 

Arlen: Historically IT and OT were completely siloed entities within organizations, with IT based around mainframe based/batch OS/LAN technologies and OT based around emerging microprocessor based/real-time OS/WAN compute technologies. But over time the legacy “technology” boundaries have disappeared to the point where the compute and networking technologies are the same. But the challenge now is to overcome existing cultural boundaries while acknowledging the different roles and responsibilities that OT and IT departments have within an organization.

OT is responsible for the safe and reliable operation of mission-critical control systems connected to a diverse population of devices in the field or on the plant floor. Skill sets include the knowledge of physical interfaces to mechanical equipment these devices are connected to, and the 40 years of legacy protocol and interface technology these devices represent. 95% of existing OT infrastructures are brownfield and can only be upgraded with very careful migration strategies that maintain operational safety while minimizing downtime. Frankly, OT systems don’t need to consider ALL information that might be available in existing field devices or sensors, but only that information required for the safe monitoring and control of the system.

IT, on the other hand, is responsible to the enterprise at large. Line-of-business solutions need to be able to provide timely and accurate information to decision-makers. For most companies in this sector, a large part of the information for those solutions needs access to operational information.

The whole notion of OT/IT convergence and notions of IIoT have come about because organizations have all determined that to be competitive in the market they need more operational information and they need that information in near real time. And this is really where the challenge is: conventional legacy SCADA technology places the SCADA host system squarely in series with all field devices that could be providing more information. Existing poll/response paradigms are continually putting OT in the unenviable position of trying to make their SCADA system the central point for all field information, whether they need that information or not. This was something that legacy SCADA systems were never designed to do.

Smart Industry: What are the benefits to be gained in properly marrying IT/OT?

Arlen: Everyone in the industry understands the benefits to be gained by combining the skills of their OT and IT departments. This is by no means a new revelation to the market, as many leading organizations have been trying leverage the strength of their OT/IT departments for the last 20 years. But with continual advancements in TCP/IP network availability, embedded Edge Gateway technology, message-transport technologies, and cloud computing (you could say the ingredients of IIoT), the desire for a strategy to marry OT/IT is expanding at an exponential pace.

Better OT Systems--No company is going to change their OT SCADA system unless the provable benefits are dramatically better than current legacy SCADA infrastructures. Leveraging available IIoT technologies will make SCADA systems faster, more secure, and more reliable than the monolithic legacy SCADA host model that exists today. Until we can show the benefits of newer, IIoT-based SCADA infrastructures, the promise of IIoT and marrying of OT/IT will not happen.

Information Access--Once the benefits of a dramatically better OT solutions can be proven, we can start to address the access to field-device information that has been stranded. Estimates are that 70 to 90 percent of all intelligent field-device and sensor data has been left stuck in field devices. Again, this was data not critical to a safe OT implementation, but rather information valuable to other line-of-business solutions in the enterprise. PLCs, RTUs, Flow Computers, Smart Sensors, network infrastructure equipment, etc. all have valuable process variables and metrics that, to date, have been left stranded because they were not critical pieces of information required by the SCADA application. IIoT technology will help to decouple devices from the SCADA application and start to make device information available to multiple data-consumer solutions.

Agility--Existing SCADA infrastructures have been built up over the last four decades and have become very monolithic. To a large extent, over time they become so brittle that no one wants to change the way they work. But this situation stifles the ability to be agile and innovate new solutions within the enterprise. IIoT technologies offer the promise of being able to rapidly prototype, test, and innovate within the existing infrastructure while maintaining a safe, mission-critical SCADA solution. 

Smart Industry: What are the opportunities/challenges that exist with interfacing to legacy field devices?

Arlen: It’s not so much an opportunity, but rather a requirement that we embrace existing legacy equipment. Although IIoT-centric field devices are already coming on the market, the fact is that equipment that is in place today will continue to be there for at least the next decade. The opportunity is that, done properly, interfacing with existing field devices will meet a large portion of the information requirements seen today while minimizing the cost associated with having to replace existing equipment. The challenge will be to select appropriate SCADA, IIoT, and Edge-of-Network gateway technology that will provide the migration-strategy component to work with existing SCADA infrastructures, while providing the scalability and flexibility to access a much broader set of process and metric information that is already available. The ability to interface to existing field devices is probably the most important component in any IIoT migration strategy. Without this ability, any IIoT-enablement project will stall at the very outset. 

Smart Industry: Is the automation industry properly using SCADA?  

Arlen: The answers are yes and no. Yes. From a pure “Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition” standpoint most SCADA-system implementations are doing a very good job for what they were designed to do. 

No. When a SCADA system is used to poll for data that it does not required just to be a “gateway” for field device data, it is being used to do something that it was never designed to do. To many SCADA systems have custom applications that sit behind them just for the purpose of accessing data that the SCADA system “didn’t need” but was asked to get on their behalf. This always results in custom SCADA-system implementations that become brittle, hard to upgrade, and in practical terms, monolithic custom applications.

Smart Industry: What is your impression of the skills capabilities of the young workforce regarding industrial IoT?

Arlen: It’s really more of a question around what is the IIoT market going to do the take advantage of the skills of a young workforce! As an industry, we’re working with 40-year-old technology (Modbus was introduced in 1978!). We use a plethora of protocols that are complex, undocumented and have been modified and tweaked over the years. In many cases SCADA systems are proprietary and have expensive “developer seat licenses” that restrict general access to learning how they work. For rapid application-development, most legacy SCADA systems don’t offer a scripting language, and for those that do, many times it is a “in house” developed language that is cryptic, hard to use, and even harder to maintain. It seems that we’re trying to keep barriers in place to intimidate a young workforce entering the market and keep them in the dark.

On the other hand, the young workforce grew up in the digital age. Engineers coming into the workforce today are very familiar with the IT technology that runs the world and “expect” this technology would be available to them from an IIoT aspect. Need a rapid application developed today? Ok, I’ll write it in JavaScript or Python. What you do mean I have to “POLL” that field device? It is a computer-based device on a TCP/IP network, so can’t it just tell me when a process variable changes?

My impression of the skills capabilities of the emerging workforce is that they are more than capable, but we as an industry need to open up the system infrastructures (and no, not open up from a security aspect) and give them better tools to exploit their knowledge and skills within the IIoT sector.

Smart Industry: What most excites you about the near future of digital transformation? 

Arlen: What excites me about the near future of the digital transformation from legacy SCADA/Telemetry systems to IIoT is that we’re finally seeing an emergence of open-source and highly available technology that will start to really make a difference. One could argue that IIoT has been around for 40 years and we called it SCADA. But when we can start applying well know “Internet of People” technology to the “Industrial Internet of Things,” we’ll start to see an exponential OT/IT convergence that will change the industry forever. 

Download an on-demand version of "Marrying IT & OT: Equipping Legacy Infrastructure for the IIoT" webinar here.