Three Guidelines to Ensure IoT Availability at Industrial Scale

The Internet of Things' potential to improve industrial processes is huge. But so is its potential to derail them—unless these important safeguards are put into place.
By John Fryer

2. Realize that operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) function differently.

Say "enterprise technology" and the following image probably leaps to mind: a gleaming, climate-controlled data center filled with racks of blinking servers, switches and storage platforms, with a team of skilled technologists constantly at the ready to attend to the systems in their charge. That's the world of IT.

Things are different in the world of OT. Consider a company operating thousands of miles of gas pipelines. It relies on a network of compression stations along the pipeline, which are used to maintain volumetric pressure and keep gas flowing. These remote stations require multiple applications to operate properly. Dedicating a server to each application is costly and complex, and takes up valuable space. OT platforms don't have teams of technologists on hand to address problems or outages. If a server goes down, a new one must be configured back at headquarters, transported out to the remote compression station and installed. The application on that server could be down for two or three days, potentially disrupting operations. Even in environments that use virtualization techniques to provide a higher degree of availability, there are risks to the multiple pieces of equipment and cabling required when such a solution is deployed outside the controlled, pristine environment of a data center.

A better approach would be to equip the compression stations with a single, simple, fault-tolerant, virtualized server—designed specifically for industrial applications—that delivers continuous service while consuming less space. Using virtualization also simplifies the process of pushing new applications out to these remote stations, avoiding the slow, costly process of sending technicians to the physical location.

Deploying simple, compact, flexible platforms that can be easily maintained by OT personnel—or remotely by IT staff—is a critical success factor for achieving availability in an IIoT deployment.

3. Identify your downtime threshold and act accordingly.

For some business applications, such as e-mail, an outage of an hour or two is annoying but likely not catastrophic for the business. In the manufacturing plant, unplanned downtime of an application controlling a packaging line in a pharmaceutical plant or silicon chip production line can create measurable effects on that quarter's revenue. Interruptions in systems that impact worker or public safety could have even more serious consequences.

By definition, the IIoT increases the scale and remoteness of deployments exponentially. Delegating the technical implementation of an industrial automation or IIoT project to those focused only on costs or budgets, without understanding the full business implications of potential weaknesses in the solution, is asking for trouble. It is critical to evaluate the potential business impact of a system failure and invest in an IIoT solution with the robustness required to meet and eliminate that threat. This factor simply cannot be overlooked.

John Fryer is the senior director of product marketing at Stratus Technologies, where he is responsible for go-to-market strategies and industry initiatives across all of the company's product lines. He has more than 25 years of experience with systems and software products in a variety of engineering, marketing and executive roles at successful startups and major companies, including Motorola, Emerson Network Power and Oracle.

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