Saturday, December 7, 2013

Business Intelligence through Network Collaboration

Posted by Erik Dellinger

One of the challenges we see today that goes beyond technology is the convergence of Automation/Control and Information Technology (IT) systems and departments. Automation professionals want and need a hardened system. The systems they manage can and do run 24/7 without any major changes. If the IT department makes a decision to push down the latest anti-virus software, install the latest patches from an operating system update, or even something more significant like install a new operating system, production at a manufacturing facility could be taken offline for minutes to weeks. There is the potential when making IT system changes to make automation systems unusable. On the other hand, IT professionals must ensure all the equipment and networks are secure and vulnerabilities are managed. The business systems that reside on these networks are better understood by the IT team and are not as likely to produce the same significant loss in operations if they are down for a short period of time while changes are made or the system is recovered.


Why are these two departments/networks, which have historically been secluded, suddenly converging and at times at odds? Part of the answer is Business Intelligence (BI). BI is becoming increasingly important as organizations look for that competitive advantage. By looking at their resources and processes on the plant floor, management now has the information they need in their business systems such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) to enable better decisions and improved operations.

There are technology advancements and policies that are indirectly supporting the convergence. For instance, “Bring your own device” or cell phone has also played a role. More and more companies are allowing and requiring these devices be used within their facility because they can provide tangible benefits. Historically, cell phones were administered and supported by IT. Because IT provides the wireless internet and VPN access for these devices to be used on the plant floor, they are inherently becoming more involved in the realm of automation.

Lastly, there are a number of concepts combining new and old technologies that are also leading this convergence. Topics like Big Data, Internet of Things (IoT), Cloud, M2M, and many more are synonymous with or related to BI. Underlying these industry concepts are real technologies that enable the collection and sharing of data and information. Communication protocols and communication products are the backbone of this sharing. IT has traditionally used web technologies like TCP and IP and the network protocol Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP). In the Industrial Automation Industry, there are numerous protocols—some are open and some are proprietary. There are overarching industry protocols like OPC, industry vertical specific protocols like IEC 61850 for substation automation, and vendor proprietary protocols like Siemens S7 TCP/IP.

The solution to improving communications between IT and Automation/Control does not require new tools or new protocols—just leveraging existing solutions. SNMP has been breaking down these barriers for years. For example, SNMP OPC servers allow the Automation professional to monitor their servers, switches, routers, and Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) within their Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) application. The SCADA application can monitor useful information that the control equipment is connected to, which is the backbone of the modern Industrial Control System (ICS). This information includes data such as network traffic or the status of a port on an Ethernet switch. This is beneficial in that it provides the Automation Engineer additional insights that can be used for troubleshooting and preventing system downtime.

Conversely, SNMP Agent functionality built into a SCADA application can allow Network Management Systems (NMS) to monitor an IP-enabled PLC or device on the plant floor. SNMP Agent capabilities built into automation applications provide IT greater access to the automation network. NMS can monitor the health, look at historical trends, and identify resource problems across physical and virtual networks—thus enabling users to make intelligent business decisions.

The SNMP Agent and the OPC server can be combined with the rest of your device communications in a communications platform. The communications platform provides easy access to information and can be installed within minutes, enabling new insights for both the Automation and IT professional. This enables IT departments to work with Automation and Control Engineers to isolate troublesome areas within the plant floor, reducing the opportunity for faulty or infected automation equipment and systems to affect or even cripple the business systems to which they are connected (and possibly other areas of the ICS).

Alongside SNMP, we see other technologies such as OPC UA coupled with Common Information Models (CIM) from other standards organizations that are enabling BI through interoperability and ease of use. Technologies such as SNMP and OPC are going to continue to enable BI, but the people involved will determine the success of these two once-secluded areas of operations.

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