Interoperability and Ethernet

May 1, 2012
We want things to work together. If I add a printer to my network, I expect it to join the network and to start working.

If I add a new instrument to my industrial network, I expect it to show up in my programming and asset management software, to quickly find documentation about set up and configuration, and to have it start communicating.

This morning during my run, I was listening to a podcast from IT Conversations (click here for the podcast) where the chief spokesperson for Skype, Sten Tamkivi, talked about communications. The recording was from a talk he gave at the Emerging Communications Conference. Sounding very much like an industrial control conference, one questioner asked why Skype had a proprietary protocol when there were open protocols. Tamkivi responded that the real problem that they are tackling is how to interoperate with the various open protocols that exist.

Countless hours have been spent by hundreds of people in meetings trying to develop an open standard for control and instrumentation. Some dream of the ability to swap out any company’s controller for another’s with no noticeable effort, training, changes or pain. Needless to say, suppliers react with a “where’s my value add” response. It’s tough for suppliers. All prefer to find a way to lock in customers. But customers now have access to tremendously more information and expect more power.

Just as Tamkivi responded, the answer is interoperability—or the ability for different systems to talk seamlessly with each other. Years ago, a group of technical people from industrial automation suppliers came together around a common problem—writing drivers for every digital device they needed to talk to. What a waste of people and skill for this never-ending job. Thus OPC was developed. Now, things could communicate while all the vendors could keep their “proprietary” value add. It somewhat solved the problem that Microsoft solved for the PC industry—I can plug something in and with minimum pain get it talking to the network.

Fiatech (, an organization principally targeted to the construction industry, held its annual meeting the first of April. I went down to talk interoperability with Alan Johnston of MIMOSA ( (an organization dedicated to interoperability within operations and maintenance) and many other leaders. The conference featured three tracks, but the interoperability one drew the largest audience.

>> Gain more insight on interoperabilty from Gary Mintchell’s video report from the Fiatech Conference. Visit

Solving a huge problem
While this may appear ludicrous on the surface, interoperability is a huge problem. Engineering firms design the facilities and the P&IDs (piping and instrumentation diagrams) in one software application. These contain the vital information used by contractors to build the facility. Then the whole thing must be turned over to the owner/operator who must then operate and maintain the facility. Most documentation is “digital” but only insofar that it is in Adobe PDF format. These documents are not machine-readable. That is the problem. The solution is to agree on standards of communication such that the information regarding products used in the design and construction can be communicated seamlessly to the software applications used by operations and maintenance (whose own systems may not always interoperate).

Let me bring that around to this month’s topic of Ethernet. That ubiquitous network platform has been a fantastic boon to networking of all kinds. The ability to run protocols on top of the network has enabled a burst of creativity that’s simply amazing if you step back and look. Building an industrial system on top of Ethernet and then following the same general communication idea of protocols talking amongst disparate systems will lead to the next burst of creativity and innovation in our industry.

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