Partnership Solidifies Work Toward IT/OT Convergence

A decade-old relationship between Rockwell Automation and Cisco Systems has grown up around the insight that the plant floor would need to work more closely with enterprise IT.

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If you were one of the almost 19,000 people out at the Automation Fair last week in Chicago, I’m not sure it would’ve been possible for you to escape without hearing something mentioned about IT/OT convergence. Although the theme of this year’s show from Rockwell Automation was the Connected Enterprise, much of the success of that concept is built around mounting cooperation between operations and the IT folks.

So it was also difficult at Automation Fair—whether you sat in conferences or walked the show floor—to avoid hearing of Rockwell demonstrating that cooperation at a macro level, through its cooperation with Cisco Systems.

As we’ve been reporting more and more, effective communication throughout the enterprise is becoming increasingly essential. Although operations and IT have not traditionally made nice—often at odds about what the priorities should be—they really can’t afford to work in their own silos anymore. Although it’s yet to really take hold, there’s even a movement toward a new breed of manufacturing employees that combine the best of OT and IT skillsets.

“Central to achieving the Connected Enterprise is the convergence of IT and OT,” said Keith Nosbusch, Rockwell’s chairman and CEO, in a presentation to industry press. “Historically, these have been two different worlds with different priorities, and base technologies. True convergence between these two worlds has been a challenge.”

Rockwell has been co-innovating with Cisco, relying on a standard, secure Cisco network infrastructure to better connect the enterprise, Nosbusch said. “This flatter, more open approach to the industrial network provides performance, flexibility and security that wasn’t achievable before.”

Industry is probably five to 10 years into blending IT and OT skills, commented Joe Kann, Rockwell’s vice president of global business development. Rockwell is working on that mix even within its own company—an effort that is helped by having “the muscle of Cisco behind it,” he added.

Rockwell and Cisco have been partnering for about 10 years, Esker said, together managing an ecosystem of strategic alliances to help address manufacturing challenges, said Rick Esker, senior director of Cisco’s Industry Solutions Group-EcoSystems. “There are people in Rockwell dedicated to managing Cisco, and I have a lead who eats, sleeps and drinks Rockwell,” he said. “The relationship goes all the way up to the top of the house.”

The two companies collaborate on products, services and educational resources to help manufacturers converge their network infrastructure and bridge the technical and cultural gaps between plant-floor and higher-level systems. Last year, for example, Cisco and Rockwell launched a training course to help IT and OT professionals overcome the challenges of converging their network technologies. At the Automation Fair later that year, they announced a joint design and implementation guide for deploying wireless equipment.

“This is a space where, to be successful, you need to bring several different organizations together—IT, OT, local and global,” said Tony Shakib, Cisco’s vice president of Internet of Everything vertical solutions. He explained that success requires not only deep domain expertise of the network, but also the PLCs and other devices. “We want to do this thing in a way that’s simple and repeatable, creating a blueprint for any company that wants to go through the journey.”

Rockwell and Cisco have a joint lab to test out various device and control configurations, Kann noted, making sure the base connectivity is right for any grand visions of the Internet of Things (IoT). “We had an inkling a decade ago that the IT role was going to grow. We took a leap,” he said, explaining Rockwell’s choice to partner with Cisco rather than try to develop its own switches or other network know-how. “We bring all of Cisco’s R&D power to bear, and their relationship with the IT customer.”

The two companies co-developed the Stratix 5700, Stratix 8000 Layer 2 and the Stratix 8300 Layer 3 managed industrial switch lines. They combine the Cisco Catalyst switch architecture with the Allen-Bradley brand to provide secure integration with the enterprise network along with easy setup and diagnostics from within the Rockwell Automation Integrated Architecture. “Today, we’re moving into collaborative selling activities,” Kann said.

Rockwell has also teamed with Cisco to develop a reference architecture for security, said Sujeet Chand, senior vice president and CTO for Rockwell, in a separate conversation. It’s a blueprint providing end-to-end security—from the device level all the way up to the IT level, he said.

Pretty much by default, IT is taking on the responsibility of securing the entire enterprise. “There’s really not much of a choice. Convergence is happening,” Chand said. “At Rockwell, if there’s a breach and the plant shuts down, we’re going to hold IT responsible. It’s not a plant manager who’s going to be held responsible. That responsibility is going to be with IT.”

Partnering to survive

IT/OT convergence has become a matter of necessity. “This digital transformation is not a nice-to-have thing anymore. It’s a matter of survival,” Shakib said. As the competition intensifies, people are starting to adapt, he added. “This digital race is on, and it’s now coming to the manufacturing world. We’re two companies working together, and we want to help.”

So it’s perhaps no wonder that the Rockwell/Cisco partnership was referenced continually throughout Automation Fair this year. Luis Gamboa, global market development manager, oil and gas, for Rockwell, mentioned it during the Oil & Gas Forum on Wednesday, discussing the need to converge transactional information from IT with real-time data from OT into a common network infrastructure. “Working with Cisco, we have been able to achieve that,” he said.

Ahmad Dean, senior instruments and automation engineer at mining and petroleum company BHP Billiton, mentioned the ease of managing its relationships with Cisco for its industrial data center. “We call Rockwell, Rockwell calls Cisco, and takes care of it,” he said. “Rockwell handles all of that interaction.”

There’s nothing exclusive about the partnership between Rockwell and Cisco, Kann said. Cisco has 77,000 partners, Shakib added, but “Rockwell by far is the most successful.”

Though Rockwell has its Encompass program in which it works with typically smaller, niche players, it has only four Strategic Alliance partners, including Cisco, Endress+Hauser, Microsoft and Panduit.

The relationship between Rockwell and Panduit is geared toward helping customers develop their physical network infrastructures for industrial environments. In a meeting to learn more about that partnership, Jim Neawedde, professional services industrial automation solutions architect for Panduit, marveled at Cisco’s foresight when it identified the need or IT/OT convergence back in 2005. “They were spot on with the importance of it,” he said. “We’re now at an inflection point, and it has to become reality.”

The physical network solutions from Panduit are developed to align with Rockwell technologies to help make deployment of the Connected Enterprise easier, faster and more secure. “We have a holistic solution that complements what Rockwell does,” Neawedde said. “We’re the physical backbone all that runs on.” Panduit helped Rockwell build its Integrated Architecture lab with verifiable and customizable designs, he added.

 

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