IIoT Comes to Traditional I/O

April 4, 2020
Intelligent, Ethernet-based I/O devices flatten the IIoT technology and talent stacks, speeding integration of wired devices to cloud IoT systems.

To create an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), we need ways to connect things (devices or equipment) to other things. Wireless technologies and smart sensors are making it possible to connect devices more easily than before, and edge computing devices and gateways are making it possible to create robust, scalable architectures.

But most of the devices in the industrial space are still traditional wired sensors and switches. The process for connecting them to other devices and software applications involves complex, multi-layered architectures consisting of field I/O networks; remote terminal units (RTUs), programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and programmable automation controllers (PACs); communication servers and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) hosts; and networking equipment to bridge corporate and control networks.

The threat of complexity

With so many components connecting data production and consumption, these systems require significant, ongoing maintenance to provide reliable operation. The typical architecture involves many point-to-point connections, using unsecured application- and device-specific protocols. As these networks grow, potential attack vectors multiply, creating headaches for information technology (IT) groups. At the same time, growth is checked by the high bandwidth consumption and lack of interoperability created by proprietary poll-response communication.

Each layer of the traditional IIoT architecture also imposes different skillset requirements. Electrical and instrumentation engineers are required to specify field I/O modules and design, install, and wire appropriate I/O panels and enclosures. Control systems engineers are required to program PLCs for signal processing and data collection. Networking and software engineers are required to configure communication gateways and servers that deliver data (finally!) to enterprise consumers.

It’s hard to imagine high-volume, autonomous data exchange in such a rigid yet vulnerable environment.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

Fortunately, automation manufacturers are introducing new I/O devices with features designed to streamline IIoT projects. Rather than requiring layers of supporting infrastructure to facilitate communication with other devices and back-end applications, this new generation of intelligent, remote I/O integrates edge computing technologies to deliver data directly to cloud Internet of Things (IoT) platforms, databases, and SCADA systems.

How does this work?

With more processing power available at the edge, I/O systems can participate in a wider range of control system functions. Instead of relying on a master controller for data acquisition, signal processing, and connectivity to higher layers, those functions can be handled directly within the I/O unit. The communication and security required for integration with IT systems can also be absorbed, short-circuiting a significant part of the traditional technology stack.

Opto 22’s groov RIO family gives us one example. Once installed, groov RIO units provide per-channel I/O type and signal-processing options, like scaling, filtering, counting, and totalization, through a browser-based interface independent of any PLC. Communication options range from simple data publishing with MQTT Sparkplug to database and web service transactions using the low-code Node-RED environment and runtime. Since groov RIO connectivity is based on standard Ethernet with support for enterprise network services, like DNS, DHCP, and SSL/TLS encryption, the need for discovery, translation, and security services provided by an intermediary gateway are minimized.

As the technology stack condenses, so does the talent stack. With intelligent, remote I/O, familiarity with IT networking and programming is sufficient to prepare and share data to any number of connected systems. In the case of groov RIO, even installation is simplified with the option of standard 802.3af Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) for unit power, output power, and excitation voltage. An understanding of field circuits is still required, but the need for precise equipment selection is mitigated by the level of built-in configurability—the first groov RIO model, GRV-R7-MM1001-10, supports 12 different types of field I/O circuits, making it capable of over 52,000 I/O combinations.

Paving the way to digital transformation

Combined with supporting technologies like MQTT, quick, affordable integration of traditional wired I/O makes it feasible to extend the reach of IIoT applications to the furthest extent of the control network. I/O heavy applications like data center infrastructure management, building security, and remote condition monitoring, can join up to enterprise networks without expensive wiring runs or deep investment in personnel. Most importantly, edge-powered remote I/O makes this possible with a higher degree of security than is possible with a traditional IIoT architecture, creating the confidence that these systems can scale reliably.

Edge computing continues to deliver solutions that make it possible to create the future-ready architecture industry needs.

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