Cloud Computing: Is It Time to Move Plant Data Outside the Plant?

March 12, 2012
While advantages are clear, it looks like successful implementation will require a battle to win the hearts and minds of manufacturing.

Are manufacturers ready for plant data and software to be stored “in the cloud”? Conventional wisdom says no, and at least one roomful of manufacturing industry executives at the ARC World Industry Forum, held in Orlando in February, seemed to concur. 

But presentations and a panel of industrial information technology (IT) heavyweights—including AT&T, Microsoft, SAP and Invensys—did their best to identify roadblocks and address concerns in a session called “Plant Software in the Cloud: Fact vs. Myth.”

Peter Reynolds, senior analyst for research and consulting firm ARC, began by asking the packed room, “Who here is contemplating a move to the cloud?” I did not see one hand go up. I might have missed a few people behind me, and it’s hard to tell at ARC who are end users and who are suppliers, but despite all that has been written about cloud computing, the audience appeared skeptical.

Reynolds summed up the technology challenges facing manufacturers: high cost of IT services, distracted IT teams, slow IT project delivery, the need to hire and train more IT resources, and security and availability of applications. Reynolds contends that “the manufacturing and supply chains” are core competencies, and where manufacturing IT organizations should focus. He said IT should not focus on “data infrastructure,” by which he means the physical servers and communications devices used to store the ever-growing amounts of corporate data.

That mushrooming mound of data is what’s driving interest in cloud computing, Reynolds contends. He said ARC’s consulting clients are saying, “We’re running out of space on-premises. We are spending too much on overhead. IT is not a core competency, and my IT staff is not adequately trained. If I can get it cheaper and more safely by outsourcing, then I will.”

Dan Miller, director of the Industry Solutions Practice of AT&T, reported his company is investing a ton of money to support cloud computing in 38 data centers. He mentioned many customer relationship management (CRM) applications are in the cloud already. The entire panel stressed that real-time process control applications should be excluded from the cloud but that all else—manufacturing and operations support (MES), plant business operations (ERP), and other software and data—“can live safely and securely on the cloud.”

Reynolds said cloud computing today is “a risk management discussion” and told the audience, “There is no zero risk for deploying IT solutions—in your plant or outside. Ownership of IT infrastructure does not mean your equipment is protected.”

Security concerns
When it came time for the panel discussion, it seemed the main roadblock was clear. In a word: security. People in the audience were not comfortable letting go of critical data, no matter how secure the panelists assured them it would be. As one audience member commented, “It’s not my computer I’m worried about. Or the cloud, for that matter. But how can you secure my data in transit?” I really did not hear a clear answer to that question.

Panelist Maryanne Steidinger, director of product marketing for automation supplier Invensys, mentioned that industrial users are “both nervous and tentative” about the cloud computing, and that Invensys was there to “demystify” the topic (see box on p. 12).

The cloud computing model could be problematic for some software vendors too, according to panelist Paul Boris, global vice president of enterprise operations management for enterprise software vendor SAP. That’s because vendors will no longer be selling site licenses, but rather users will be paying as they go for what they use. As it turns out, that’s a major financial incentive for manufacturers to find out what portion of data could be moved to the cloud.

The fact is, if cloud computing can deliver financial benefits, it deserves to be considered. It may be crazy to keep investing in server hardware, and data center space limitations do become a factor. Software as a service is a successful innovation that is already proven. And while data security is a major issue, cloud service providers may have more resources and expertise to address the rapidly changing nature of cyber attacks.

So where does that leave us in our cloud discussion? I honestly wonder if they had called it “the vault” instead of “the cloud,” we might not be having this discussion. It remains to be seen how providers of cloud computing services can address the data security issue once and for all.

Click here to read an exclusive interview with Maryanne Steidinger, director of product marketing for automation supplier Invensys, as she helps demystify the topic of cloud computing.