Monitoring converged industrial IT infrastructure

 Originally published on June 12, 2020 by Shaun Behrens
Last updated on June 17, 2020 • 8 minute read

Convergence is something that almost all technological areas are facing, and industrial IT is no exception. And while factory floors and production lines are scrambling to meet the new challenges brought about by convergence, there is another aspect they must consider, too: how to monitor it all. But before we get to the monitoring aspect, we first should consider just what this convergence means for industrial IT.

Digitalization and convergence

In many industries, digitalization has been transforming the technological landscape for the past few decades. And as digitalization adds new elements to the IT infrastructure, it has two consequences: one, it also forces a modernization of parts of the infrastructure that have historically been isolated, and two, it requires these older parts to be able to connect and communicate with the newer parts. This results in a convergence of multiple disparate technologies.

For industrial IT, there are several aspects to this convergence: operational technology (OT), information technology (IT) and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Operational Technology (OT)

Here’s how Wikipedia defines OT:

“Operational technology (OT) is hardware and software that detects or causes a change, through the direct monitoring and/or control of industrial equipment, assets, processes and events”.

OT includes industrial control systems (ICS), such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, programmable logic controllers (PLC), remote terminal units (RTU), Industrial PCs (IPC), and distributed control systems (DCS), to name a few. Many of these systems have historically been closed and isolated, not needing to communicate with the “outside world” much, and has resulted in the systems and platforms using their own standards and protocols.

Information Technology (IT)

This is the “traditional” infrastructure that you’d find in any IT environment, and consists of routers, servers, storage, switches, domain controllers, and other hardware and software required for communicating data. 

Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)

Since digital transformation in industries started, more and more connected and smart devices are appearing in factory settings. This includes sensors for monitoring environmental factors like temperature and humidity, as well as devices needed for smart automation.

Digitalization is also a driver for retrofitting existing solutions, in order to make existing machines smarter using IIoT devices.

The rise of the industrial edge

IT and OT were previously very siloed within factory infrastructure, with engineers managing the OT aspects and system administrators managing the IT aspects. These systems were, until recently, very rarely interconnected. But now, digitalization is sparking convergence. Data – key to managing production processes effectively – needs to be gathered, analyzed and utilized at all levels, from the production floor through to the facility itself. This means that devices that were previously isolated– take the programmable logic controllers, for example – now need to connect to data collection systems.

Examples of this are easy to find. New industrial PCs, RTUs or PLCs use protocols to connect to the cloud or other data collection systems. The hardware itself is also becoming more consolidated as single computers (like industrial PCs) can perform the same functions that would previously require multiple pieces of hardware.

All of this has resulted in industrial edge devices becoming data aggregation points that are connected to various systems, and thus a key part of a solution to monitor the infrastructure. Gartner describes them as “IoT gateways” and this is their definition:

“An industrial IoT gateway is a bridge between a field network and the IoT platform or sometimes a business application. Industrial IoT gateways can be viewed as data aggregation points for field devices or wireless networks. They provide local storage and compute capabilities as well as a user interface for data processing and system management.”

The role of these edge devices and gateways makes them a vital part of a monitoring strategy.

Merging the monitoring view

Convergence also has an effect on monitoring; previously, OT would be monitored either by means provided by the machines or devices, or from the industrial control system. Meanwhile, IT would be monitored with traditional monitoring tools. IIoT devices might provide their own dashboards for monitoring.

The challenge with monitoring this converging infrastructure is to bring various metrics into a single view. Essentially, someone managing a merging industrial infrastructure needs an overview of the traditional IT elements, the OT elements like the gateway devices, and other metrics from IIoT devices. They need to instantly see if there is a problem with an industrial control system, like an IPC: health statistics such as RAID, storage, CPU usage and fan rotation are metrics that can help avoid stoppages to production. At the same time, what about environmental conditions? You need to be alerted if the humidity level gets too high in certain areas, or if a high temperature might be indicating that cooling processes are not sufficient. Power consumption is another important metric. 

This end-to-end overview is just one of the challenges of convergence. So where does the potential solution lie?

A part of the answer lies in the protocols and standards that are developing and increasing in prevalence in industrial infrastructure. Many industrial control systems permitted SNMP access historically, but many also only provide access through fieldbus protocols like  Modbus TCP. MQTT is often used to communicate upstream from the industrial edge device to a data center or the cloud. Factory infrastructure is also seeing an increase in adoption of OPC-UA, an open, cross-platform, service-oriented architecture for industrial automation.

Requirements for monitoring industrial infrastructure

If the key is to bring as many metrics as possible into a single overview, then there are several requirements for a monitoring solution:

  • It must be vendor agnostic
  • It must understand the common communication protocols and standards used in an industrial setting.
  • It needs to deliver notifications to the right team when failures occur across the infrastructure.
  • It needs to provide dashboards with IT, OT, and IIoT metrics delivered in the same place, as well as specialized dashboards for each user group.

Are you working with industrial infrastructure? What are your experiences with this converging architecture? Let us know in the comments below.

For more information about monitoring industrial IT, visit our Industrial IT monitoring solution page.