Complete Control Through Software

Software is becoming the critical element in monitoring and controlling critical infrastructure with IoT technology.


As Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) applications proliferate in critical infrastructure, such as the power grid and water supply, the importance of the underlying software and the availability of an open-source platform for app development is coming to the forefront.

This marks a significant shift, particularly in the industrial and commercial world, where software historically has played a less-obvious role. In fact, until several years ago the majority of software used in industrial machinery was confined to the graphical user interface.

Software content has grown steadily since then. “Devices are getting smaller and more software-centric,” said Eric Starkloff, National Instruments’ executive vice president of global sales and marketing. “The real power is in the software.”

That also increasingly is where the value is, which is why tools companies are focusing on how to simplify the creation of new software and how to make it better. Christopher Relf, chief engineer at VI Engineering, said in a statement at last week’s NI Week that the channel wires in the new LabVIEW platform allow his company to develop applications faster with architectures that are transferrable across domains. “With channel wires, we can set up sophisticated software architectural patterns that natively have multiple sources, without having to create and maintain considerable amounts of custom software in the background.”

Business, but not as usual
This is evident in relationships between hardware and software companies, as well. In the past, software was viewed as completely separate from hardware, even within big server companies that developed their own software. The lines are becoming less distinct, and the relationships between companies are changing because of it.

Case in point: Hewlett Packard Enterprise and National Instruments both will sell HPE’s new Edgeline servers for the industrial IoT. Tom Bradicich, HPE’s vice president and general manager of servers and IoT systems, said the new servers can work as “converged IoT systems,” with machine learning and visualization involved, and they can enable the convergence of information technology and operational technology. The new servers use up to 64 Intel Xeon processors and related software from NI.

Jamie Smith, NI’s director of embedded systems product management and product marketing, said this kind of control can change the entire grid. “We can make the grid smarter,” he said. “We can make the trains run on time.” Applications and other software can “cross industry borders that have traditionally been silos,” he noted.

Time-sensitive networking
This will be required for a new concept called time-sensitive networking, which is based on an evolution of Ethernet standards. Cisco Systems, Intel, and other large systems companies are driving this idea as a way of further breaking down some of the traditional boundaries for the flow of data.

“IT and OT (operational technology) networks have been kept separate,” Smith said, because managers in both areas didn’t want one network to interfere with the operations of the other. TSN is enabling the convergence of IT and OT, he added.

Mark Buckner, the power and energy systems group leader in the Electrical and Electronic Systems Division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, demonstrated how a power microgrid can operate with resiliency and sufficient cybersecurity. The set-up he showed off at NI Week included three inverters, converting direct-current power from renewable energy sources to alternating-current power.

He predicted that 80% of all U.S. power will come through power electronics by 2030.

NI’s Smith touted these “next-generation control technologies,” as a requirement for time-sensitive networking. “TSN will be a big help.”

Smarter, more talkative factories
At the World of IoT Forum during last month’s Semicon West conference and trade show in San Francisco, attendees heard from a number of IoT startups and some more established companies. Beth Parkinson, director of market development-connected enterprise for Rockwell Automation, said the industrial IoT market is growing 15% to 18% a year.

“Smart manufacturing is enabled by the connected enterprise,” she said. “Smart assets are self-aware and system-aware.”

Matt Trowbridge, vice president of marketing for Omron Automation, called for collaboration in the development of semiconductors, automotive electronics, and the IoT. “Generation Y will demand future cars to be part of the IoT,” he said.

The Hyundai Kia sedan has some 30,000 parts provided by a wide-ranging network of suppliers, Trowbridge noted. “You’re going to need factories that can talk to each other,” he said.

Collaborative robotics, or cobotics, can boost the production rates of automotive plants, using IoT technology, including software resources. IoT is “making real-time data visual and actionable,” Trowbridge asserted.

Daniel McGinn, director of secure power systems at Schneider Electric, said the security threats in the modern world aren’t just about cybersecurity. “You might have a Web server in your thermostat,” he said. “We have to change how we control these things.”

Schneider is involved in helping its customers in “reducing IT sprawl,” McGinn said at Semicon West. “There are pockets of IT in the OT space,” he said, often including “unsecured and outdated hardware and software.”

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