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Build it properly! The challenges and opportunities with a solid IIoT foundation

July 17, 2023
"The industrial-data platform sits on top of a heterogeneous device environment."
By Harry Grewal, director of partnerships with Litmus, and Michael Sherman, head of business development with Ataya

Establishing a solid IIoT foundation has its share of challenges. Every project introduces a new set of devices to connect, often with different access-network requirements, communication protocols and data formats to be mapped to different applications. Each new technology, device or application requires reconfiguration of the network fabric, creating security risks. If improperly managed, this will increase overhead costs required to maintain a disjointed network with underutilized data and overlooked security risks.

Fortunately, these challenges are easily manageable with an effective IIoT platform making networking configuration simple and secure for all types of networks and devices.

The industrial-data platform and the underlying networking layer are two key components of an IIoT stack. Think of the industrial-data platform as a virtual decoder ring. The data platform simplifies data collection, normalizes the data for consuming systems, provides valuable context to the data and enables data processing for actionable insights either on premise or in the cloud, depending on the deployment model. The networking layer is like air-traffic control at a massive airport. It establishes a single view across different access technology networks (like Ethernet, WiFi, 5G and others) to provide universal connectivity and effectively manage all inbound and outbound traffic. It further enhances network performance by applying a common set of policies and zero-trust security across these disparate networks to ensure traffic flows safely to where it should.

Tightly coupling the industrial-data platform with the networking layer can facilitate rapid shop-floor deployments and reduce downtime.

So what makes the industrial data platform so integral to an IIoT stack?

Industrial data is at the heart of IoT. This is key because most enterprise-data tools cannot interact with industrial machines, PLCs, robots, and everything else on a manufacturing-plant floor, nor can they make those devices talk to each other. What manufacturers need is an industrial-data platform to collect, normalize, contextualize, and analyze the operational data, at an enterprise scale in a secure way—without disrupting day-to-day factory operations.

The industrial-data platform sits on top of a heterogeneous device environment—connecting to legacy PLC or DCS systems and modern SCADA and MES systems. These connections enable a centralized and normalized single source of truth. The platform also integrates with various forms of data lakes and enables data transfers to all the major cloud providers. Such an approach at an enterprise scale can lead to a new data-driven operational reality that is based on more context driving real-time actionable insights that were not previously attainable.

At its core, an industrial-data platform makes industrial IoT more accessible. It empowers manufacturers to foster better collaboration between the business decision-makers and the doers on the shop floor.

With a strong industrial-data platform in place, manufacturers can easily adopt digital twins for energy management, asset management, or any other use case by leveraging the same platform with the data already collected. They can deploy a containerized docker application across multiple sites, in just a few clicks. Essentially, once a data solution is proven, it can be

easily replicated to scale rapidly, providing a much faster time-to-value for manufacturers. And these are just a few of the applications that a powerful industrial-data platform can significantly accelerate.

But, well before all of the above, manufacturers face the complexity of securely connecting heterogeneous systems, managing underlying networks, and orchestrating those networks without further complicating them. That leads to the next essential component of an IIoT stack.

Why focus on a good networking-layer solution? Simply enough, it frees teams to get the best point solutions for their use cases while eliminating the associated network-management issues, reducing application-integration complexity, and limiting security risks. It’s worth exploring each of these areas.

Disparate networks: For every new IIoT project, a primary concern is whether it’s possible to leverage existing network investments. Unfortunately, brownfield industrial environments present a complex mix of networking challenges, including cabling difficulties and physical shop floors unfriendly to radio transmission. The characteristics of the IIoT communication requirements for the use case matter too—the data might be massive and frequent from a few devices (WiFi) or tiny and infrequent from a plethora of devices (5G), or somewhere in-between. Forcing a new IIoT project into an existing network that can’t handle these requirements puts the investment at risk while creating production disruption.

The decision to deploy a new purpose-built network fixes many of these challenges, but is short sighted as it introduces a new isolated network with new connectivity, data and security challenges to manage, increasing overall OT labor costs.

Increased security risks: The security tax is often forgotten during the planning stage. Adding modern solutions improves production, but these new devices, access networks, and external applications introduce new vulnerabilities and network attack surfaces. Modern malware can infiltrate networks to render sensors and automation systems useless, effectively shutting down production.

Fortunately, an effective networking-layer foundation for the OT network eliminates those worries. Universal connectivity aggregates management across disparate networks into a single OT network, providing a simplified management view to identify and resolve issues, streamlining OT management and associated operational costs. This enables the option to maintain legacy solutions longer, or easily migrate to modern solutions. The simplified network facilitates integrating new applications, quickly unlocking data for new use cases.

As a single unified network, teams can apply a uniform set of policies across all access technologies to handle access credentials, QoS, and (most importantly) security. Today’s best networking-layer solutions leverage zero-trust principles to dramatically reduce attack surfaces by effective network-segmentation and threat-prevention. Micro-segmentation can be applied at a device and application level to control all traffic flows between specific devices and to applications, while also ensuring the traffic aligns with the intended use.

It doesn’t matter whether an IIoT network is greenfield or brownfield, or weighed down by legacy devices. Optimizing an IIoT investment starts with optimizing network visibility and data availability to minimize production downtime and maximize output yield. Before adding another device or application to any OT network, it should first have a sound foundation for the industrial-data platform and networking layer. With this approach, an IIoT network is future-proofed and ready for the addition of new devices and applications, thereby becoming plug-and-play to more quickly realize the benefits of Industry 4.0.