Bringing the Cloud Down to Earth

In an exclusive interview with Automation World after the ARC World Industry Forum’s panel discussion on “Plant Software in the Cloud: Fact vs. Myth,” Invensys panelist Maryanne Steidinger explained more to help “demystify” the topic of cloud computing.

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“The benefits of cloud computing are most evident in consumer applications such as SugarSynch and Apple iCloud,” Steidinger said, “which enable users to access, sync and share data from multiple points. But while there is also significant potential for such functionality in industrial applications, the industrial automation market has been slow to adopt cloud technology. That’s not surprising, given how much plant operators and other plant personnel rely on real-time data, as well as the resources they expend on securing and protecting that data.”

And it’s not an Operations versus IT issue either, she says. “The real problem is trusting the cloud to provide the same level of security that exists when a physical computer and software are safely housed in the operating facility, theoretically protected by a firewall. The industrial world is well aware that that even HMI and SCADA systems aren’t free from system hackers, and those systems presumably have the necessary protections in place. Additionally, in most companies, data equals intellectual property so subjugating that to the cloud presents too many unknowns. The risk at this point is just too high.”

So how can industry take advantage of the benefits the cloud provides? “You can begin by using the cloud for visualization and information sharing,” Steidinger says. “Start out by looking at applications that are similar to CRM [customer resource management] tools, such as key performance indicator dashboards or analytics delivered on smart devices, such as a phone or tablet. SmartGlance, a reporting tool offered jointly by Invensys Operations Management and its partner Sarla, is a good example of a cloud-based reporting service.” SmartGlance uses a variety of mobile devices to push near real-time operations and status reports, based upon data from either a SQL database or data historian. Applications like SmartGlance use, but do not host, real-time data, and they transform it into actionable information, available on demand.

“Next,” continues Steidinger, “seek out applications that you regularly use for workflow or other knowledge management, such as operator training, corrective action and maintenance. Using a vendor that has a wide array of products, as well as a commitment to open standards, can help you ease into a cloud-based application while supporting your current information architecture. 

“And, if your company requires multiple versions of software applications and operating systems, as well as high availability, failover and reliability, server virtualization can significantly lower your cost of software ownership. It is similar to the cloud and, as with consumer cloud applications, it helps you configure your computing resources so that your software does not need to reside in your physical location. Virtualization also allows better ROI by multi-tasking your physical hardware so that multiple applications and even different operating systems can all share the same physical computing resources on a single box.”  

One more thing to remember: Many companies are already leveraging the cloud for HMI/SCADA and other industrial applications, using “private cloud” configurations that are essentially hosted by their in-house IT department, Steidinger says: “Talk to your peers and learn from their experiences and best practices. All of this will bring the cloud down to earth for you.” 

Click here to read more about cloud computing—is it time to move plant data outside the plant? 

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