It’s not the Network, it’s the Convergence!

Last week I wrote a post about Software Defined Networks in the IIoT. This week in response one of my clients shared a different viewpoint. My client told me that the system convergence phenomenon would be more important than networking for the IIoT. He convinced me that he’s right, in the mid-term to long term time frame at least. Let me explain.

Most higher-level applications in process automation systems can now execute on virtual machines (VMs) running in on-premise servers. This greatly improves maintenance, patching, hardware upgrade requirements, etc. All the process automation suppliers have server-based virtualization solutions for part of what they deliver. My colleagues returning from Honeywell’s recent User Group meeting reported to me on the continued virtualization of Honeywell “legacy” equipment (see figure below).

Meanwhile in the IT world, a topic with buzz now is “hyper-converged infrastructure”, (HCI). In English, HCI refers to a highly modularized and pre-configured on-premise cloud that includes resources for compute, network, storage, and management. For IT organizations, this enables simplified installation, expansion and management with less setup work. These products also scale down so some are targeted for small offices and small teams.

Referring to the figure again, if you’re working in IT you probably won’t recognize the non-server equipment on the bottom of the figure. These are controllers and field measurement I/O equipment. The controllers run on dedicated, specialized, high-availability hardware under an RTOS. These devices have stubbornly resisted virtualization. That’s because they are mission-critical and need to run for years at a time. My client believes the day of their virtualization is at hand.

If so, then every application in process automation except for field I/O will end up running on VMs. The number of physical servers in any plant will become an engineering decision, and scaled-down HCI products will make those decisions more comfortable and economical. How long will this take? Very good question, though very difficult. But I expect to have some end user reports later this year or at next year’s ARC Orlando Forum.

As this transition occurs, these HCI installations will also be able to execute the functions of today’s IIoT gateways. They will be fully integrated with IIoT applications and services because of…convergence.

Honeywell Legacy and Virtualized Process Automation Systems (Source: Honeywell)

Honeywell Legacy and Virtualized Process Automation Systems (Source: Honeywell)

Comments

  1. I agree with your client, that convergence is going to be a key enabler/driver going forward. It’s this convergence for which consortia like OpenFog and the Open Process Automation Forum are trying to define standards.

    • Brett,

      Agree 100%.

      Note, however, that the use-cases these 2 groups are trying to serve are VERY, VERY different. OpenFog is trying to greatly simplify the integration of edge computing in IIoT. OPA Forum is trying to create a reference architecture for what (today) are a set of highly proprietary products serving mission-critical production applications. The requirements are quite different.

      h

  2. I also agree with your client. The idea of converging more of the “IT world” onto pre-configured platforms should make it easier to install and manage these systems within the plant floor. There is the added risk of putting all of your eggs in one basket, so to speak

    • Barry,

      The 2 things industrial end users are going to need are 1) ability to scale DOWN, so that the scope of any single system can be sufficiently small to make a process industry end user comfortable that there are not “too many eggs in one basket” as you say, and 2) industrial ruggedness in the hardware, which is obvious.

      h

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