Is interoperability key to successful industrial IoT deployments?

By Leah Langston

The Industrial IoT promises to revolutionize the way we operate manufacturing, energy, and transportation systems. And yet, due to the large array of complex, interconnected technologies that make up the Internet of Things, there is no one company who can provide a complete, enterprise IIoT solution.

To illustrate, let’s explore the architecture of an IIoT system. It’s not just about increasing the number of “smart” devices and sensors; it’s about how we communicate and manage a massive amount of data over a distributed network that includes edge nodes, on-premises IT, and the cloud.

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Figure 1: Within this architecture, many different subsystems and technologies must come together to build a complete solution. An IIoT solution includes sensors & actuators, data acquisition, embedded computing, cyber security, data analytics, machine learning, visualization, data storage & management, and more.

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Figure 2: Which single company can provide every one of these technologies? In truth, no one vendor can do it all. System designers will need to integrate technology components from multiple vendors to create application-specific systems that will improve quality, yield, efficiency, and safety.

Navigating a Complex Communication Infrastructure

But managing the communication between subsystems from multiple vendors is no small task. The communication stack diagram from the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) illustrates this well. Not only must you manage multiple layers of communication standards and protocols, but many industrial verticals, such as manufacturing or the electrical grid, have their own set of industrial protocols to navigate.

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Figure 3: In addition, there are many legacy M2M systems that are already deployed, which use a variety of proprietary protocols.
These must be integrated into your system as well. According to the IIC, “It is not a matter of agreeing on a small set of standards to rule the IIoT world, but about carefully orchestrating complex and partially competing protocols and standards on multiple levels…” In other words, playing nice.

Interoperability is the Key to Success

Because of this, one of the key criteria you should evaluate in a technology from an IIoT vendor is interoperability–the ease of communicating information in and out of the boundaries of that technology.

Information can be communicated in four ways: protocols, data files, web services, and APIs. In IIoT systems, different methods will likely be used for different parts of your system. However, the ultimate goal is to make this communication between subsystems as easy as possible, so that system designers can focus their efforts on solving true system problems, not problems created by tools.

What, then, are the criteria that you should look for when evaluating interoperability? There are two dimensions that you should consider: openness and technology partnerships.

Selecting for Openness

Openness relates to how easy it is for developers to build and customize systems using the platform. When designing IIoT systems with multiple vendors, some of the features that can enable programmer usability are:
• Support for many communication protocols, including the many vertical industrial protocols such as CAN, Fieldbus, OPC UA, EtherCAT, Modbus, and IEC-61850
• Support for multiple data file types
• Software development kits (SDKs) and module development kits (MDKs), such as PTC’s SDKs for the ThingWorx platform
• Open source Real-Time Operating Systems, such as NI Linux Real-Time
• Open and extensible APIs
• Plug-ins and add-ons, such as the LabVIEW Cloud Toolkit for Amazon Web Services

Features like these prevent systems engineers from being designed into a corner as systems evolve, since they provide options for communicating data in and out of technology boundaries. Open platforms reduce the likelihood of being limited by technology that has restricted functionality or that supports a very narrow set of communication protocols.

Seeking Out Technology Partnerships
In addition, partnerships between vendors further reduce risk of integrating adjacent technologies by proving out integration efforts themselves. Through collaborative efforts such as the IIC testbeds, participating companies are working together to integrate technologies from multiple domains and creating reference architectures for typical IIoT use cases like predictive maintenance and smart grid communication and control.
One example of these partnerships can be found in a technology demonstration that lives in the National Instruments Industrial IoT lab. This demo performs asset health monitoring on a pump and combines technology from several vendors, including:
• Flowserve—Complete flow system solutions
• Hewlett Packard Enterprise—Deep edge compute and remote systems management
• NI—Data acquisition and feature extraction
• PTC—IoT platform including analytics and augmented reality (AR) for enterprise
• OSIsoft—Data management and historian

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Figure 4: Flowserve complete flow systems solutions

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Figure 5: Because of this collaboration, these vendors developed validated APIs for communication between subsystems, such as NI’s measurement platform, OSI’s data management system, and PTCs analytics platform. Therefore, systems designers who are seeking to develop similar systems, can do so knowing that the risk of interoperability challenges between these subsystem is very low.

Business leaders should be wary of vendors who claim to provide a complete IIoT solution. The reality is a that a complete IIoT system involves components from many technology domains, from data acquisition to augmented reality. Instead, seek out technology partners who recognize the criticality of integrating effectively with adjacent technologies and playing nice with other vendors.

(The author is product marketing engineer, DAQ & Control, NI)

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