Seeking a unified hardware approach for IIoT control

1Although the Internet of Things (IoT) has emerged in every market segment, its implementation varies widely. In the Industrial IoT (IIoT), for example, a much more robust, reliable set of technologies is required than in the consumer world. Here, technology standards organizations will play an important role in ensuring that safety-critical IIoT systems can be developed at the lowest cost, fastest time to market, and minimize the low-level software engineering burden.

SANDY: You are right in pointing out the diversity of IoT. We often talk about IoT as if it is a monolithic marketplace, but really it is more of an enabling technology. Everything from consumer-fitness devices to power-grid controllers and automated vehicles have been referred to as IoT. Clearly, there are big differences in the needs of each of these.

Within PICMG, we are focusing primarily on the needs of IIoT. This is a natural outgrowth of the automated industrial computing segment that we have served for over twenty years. Here, the requirements for reliability, rugged packaging, safety, and security are more important than the typical consumer device. Furthermore, hardware and software interoperability also tends to be more important as sensors, actuators, and controllers from multiple vendors must work together seamlessly. All of this can benefit from standardization.

A similar story has already played out in telecommunications. Network functions virtualization (NFV) enabled operators to decouple their hardware and software purchasing decisions and move away from expensive, purpose-built proprietary systems. This enabled new companies to enter the market by focusing on either high-quality software solutions or “white box” hardware solutions. Operators have the freedom of choice to select the best hardware solution to meet their installment requirements independent of their software selection.

PICMG TECHNOLOGIES: What benefits do uniform hardware platforms bring in terms of programming? Can they enable more “IT” type engineers to develop solutions for the operational technology [OT] domain?

SANDY: Can IT development resources be used to monitor and control a large array of sensors and actuators? If cloud computing is an indicator, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Here, huge racks of equipment are provisioned, monitored, and controlled using predominantly IT techniques such as RESTful interfaces. In each installment, data from thousands of rack-level sensors are constantly being monitored in order to provide us with the efficiency and reliability of cloud services that we have come to expect.

Granted, there are differences between cloud data centers and industrial deployments, such as safety issues related to equipment control. In these cases, it’s likely that additional non-IT personnel will be required to configure the system and verify its integrity.

PICMG TECHNOLOGIES: What do you envision as the baseline requirements of such a platform (I/O, networking, modularity, SWaP [size, weight, and power], etc.)?

SANDY: Typical hardware requirements include Ethernet networking for upstream connections as well as a variety of downstream control networks such as CAN, Industrial Ethernet, and I2C. More importantly, however, the manner in which the controller gathers information and reacts to events from downstream devices also requires standardization if the controller is to be useful.

From a hardware perspective, we are seeing a lot of interest in COM Express. This makes sense because its small form factor, processing performance, and flexible I/O configuration make it a natural fit for small gateways and control functions in small to medium installations, with distributed controllers for larger deployments. CompactPCI Serial has been adapted for railway control and space and may also serve as a flexible gateway/controller in larger installations.

Pieces of the existing PICMG hardware platform management (HPM) solution may also be useful within a rack or over a local sensor network. When communicating upstream, however, I believe interfaces based on a uniform data model and RESTful interfaces are probably the best way to go. Because of PICMG’s expertise in industrial control we are currently investigating the unique requirements of IIoT control and management in order to determine what software standardization might be needed.

PICMG TECHNOLOGIES: Do you see a need to build security and/or wireless components/certification into future PICMG IoT standards?

SANDY: With news about hacks occurring regularly, security is top of mind for everyone involved with IIoT. Potential damage due to hacking a factory or power grid has immediate and long-reaching implications that go far beyond the typical case of identity theft or credit fraud. This being said, PICMG recognizes that security is not owned by any single entity, but rather by each and every entity within the supply chain. Our IoT specifications will include requirements for compliance with all security standards that are relevant to IIoT deployments.

Doug Sandy, the Vice President of Technology for PICMG, has more than 24 years of industry experience in the embedded computing, industrial automation, telecommunications, and cloud computing spaces. Doug has worked as technical fellow, chief technology officer, and chief architect for major corporations including Motorola, Emerson, and Artesyn Embedded Technologies. Sandy has focused much of his career on advancing industry standards that provide multivendor interoperability and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions such as DeviceNet, ETSI NFV, and the PICMG families of specifications. He now enjoys training the next generation of engineers at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic Campus, where he is a full-time educator and program coordinator for software engineering capstone projects.