Connecting Legacy Systems to the Internet of Things

April 19, 2016
Millions of pre-Internet assets continue to provide value, but lack the connectivity of newer products. With the right technology, this equipment can be brought up to date to maximize the investment.

Home automation products get a lot of attention these days: they’re easy to connect, with Linux and security often built in. But industrial and utility companies face a significant challenge in bringing the same connectivity and control to products that were built and installed more than a decade ago.

Millions of these legacy devices still have years of remaining value if they can be connected to the Internet.

Providing an example of how this is being done today, Matt Newton, director of technical marketing at Opto 22, explained at The Linux Foundation’s recent Open IoT Summit how wind farm operators have updated legacy devices for remote monitoring and to automatically manage power generation down to the individual turbine. Turbines can now monitor the spot price of energy and turn on or off based on price parameters. This automated ability lowers costs, increases profits, and helps wind farms avoid penalties for overproducing energy. The system also alerts the operators to maintenance issues before they become a serious problem. (See the details of how Opto 22 is doing this in the Automation World feature article “Putting the Internet of Things Into Practice.”)

IBM’s Andy Stanford-Clark, IBM Distinguished Engineer for Internet of Things (IoT), also spoke at the Summit and stressed the importance of preventive maintenance. “Many IoT use cases are in predictive analytics—determining where [a machine] is likely to fail,” said Stanford-Clark. “This is about proactive maintenance, instead of sending someone out in a truck late at night. That one thing on its own can justify the IoT investment.”

The Barriers

Although the technology to bring legacy equipment into the IoT is here, Newton identified two barriers that still need to be addressed.

The first of these barriers is the OT/IT gap. The players on each side of the field come from vastly different cultures, with different attitudes about change and technology. People in operational technology purchase costly hardware that often stays in place for decades, while those in IT are concerned about data management and are used to replacing or updating technology as soon as something better comes out.

“If this was an easy problem to solve, it would have been solved a long time ago. It’s a significant challenge because it’s a human one,” said Newton. Though their mentalities are different, the groups must work together. “The commonality is uptime.”

The other issue is often referred to as “the data problem.” Once connectivity is established, the opportunity exists to collect more data than the infrastructure can handle efficiently. Companies have to ask themselves how often they need to aggregate and push data to stay agile and avoid data floods.

“We have this assumption that the cloud will always be the most powerful” means of managing data. “But our phones are already more powerful than we ever thought possible,” said Bryan Che, general manager, Cloud product strategy at Red Hat. “As we get to smaller devices, we get smaller software. Our edge devices will get so powerful that we can bring decisions out of the data center.”

In light of this, it’s critical that some control remain at the edge for real-time problem solving in potentially dangerous, industrial situations. “Control signals need to get there now, we can’t have the buffering problem,” said Newton. “It could be life or death.” 

Bridging the Gap

To bridge the OT/IT gap and allow data from the physical world to be available to the Cloud, there are three key features end users should look for in any technology that can be used to link legacy devices to the Internet:

  • PC-based control and common protocols for successful, secure communication with a variety of systems. “The new mantra in SCADA and the wider Internet of Things is, ‘it's all about the data.’ Being able to securely send data from SCADA devices to analytics systems such as the IBM Watson IoT Platform, using the industry standard messaging protocol MQTT, enables actionable insights to be gained from sensor data,” noted Stanford-Clark. To support predictive maintenance on remote assets, the ability to “access a wide variety of data sources to inform decisions at the edge of the network is also of growing importance,” he said. “Integration technology such as the popular open-source Node-RED software enables a wide variety of data to be accessed and processed using an intuitive drag-and-drop user interface.”

Opto 22’s groov product, which Stanford-Clark recently praised for its use of MQTT and Node-Red, is an embedded Linux appliance that allows developers to rapidly build web-based interfaces for IoT applications using a drag-and-drop, point-and-click interface, without having to write or debug code.

  • An industrially hardened interface. Raspberry Pis are inexpensive, great for prototyping and allow for storage—but they’re not built to work in the harsh conditions that characterize an industrial edge system’s environment. Such systems must be able to function around fire, magnetic interference, extreme temperatures and people who might not treat the equipment gently at all times.

Sturdier products may be more costly than small computers like Pis, but companies must weigh the cost of the technology vs. industrial failure, which could include catastrophic events like rig shutdown, operator injury or fatality.

  • Customization. Mark Bolzern, Founder of iA3, spoke at the Summit about the need to customize automation to provide safe drinking water. He explained that there are cases in which a subdivision drills a well and must then add automation with limited resources. With customizable, PC-based programs, local water systems (and other small operations) can add the industrial control they need without bells and whistles they don’t. Though Bolzern was speaking to a community need for access to safe drinking water, his point about getting the control abilities you need—without the features you don’t—is something any industrial user can relate to.

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