The influence of information technology (IT) on operations technology (OT) affects every area of industrial automation, from networked smart sensors to virtual software deployment. The Industrial Edge originated as the place where OT meets IT – a bridge between two disparate technology cultures that helps connect legacy industrial systems to the IT world. Today, the role of the Edge is expanding… into what?
Today’s automation solutions consist of a myriad of software applications installed across various systems and smart devices. While these systems and devices are easily connected using contemporary IT technologies, they often have special requirements and priorities that can’t be addressed with standard IT tools and practices. Bringing together the worlds of IT and OT requires an environment with tools that consider these requirements – a sort of last mile for industrial machinery. This is the emerging role of the Industrial Edge.
Recognizing the evolving role of the Edge in industrial applications, Siemens embarked on a journey to develop a comprehensive solution. The result is the Siemens Industrial Edge – a platform developed for industrial users to integrate and manage a multitude of applications at the automation and control levels with all the advantages of a modern IT system.
How the Industrial Edge Is Transforming Automation Systems
According to ARC research, over 65 million PLC systems are currently installed around the world. The market enjoys healthy growth and each year about 8 million new systems are added. Traditional PLC-based automation systems are revered for their robustness, reliability and repeatability, and often reviled for their lack of openness and support for modern programming tools. Storing and evaluating raw data from industrial machinery was never a strength of the PLC. This is why users often placed additional computing resources and sensors close to the process to collect and analyze data and create actionable information in real-time. As the need for integrated analytics grew, the concept of edge computing in industrial applications was born.
Today, the Industrial Edge is a platform on which value can be added to existing automation systems. This value is derived not just from hosting apps for near-process analytics, it also comes from the ability to centrally roll out apps and manage field devices on plant floors. These features are important because the amount of plant floor software will grow significantly as automation solutions become more software-defined and users deploy more home-grown apps.
Unlike traditional automation systems, IT systems are built on open standards with broad offerings of products that create healthy competition, which in turn reduces vendor lock-in. As users migrate to open, virtual architectures, it is important that Edge solutions continue this spirit of openness and vendor-independence.
Managing Apps and Devices at the Edge
IT administrators in a mid-sized company typically manage hundreds or even thousands of devices. Their goal is to ensure the availability of computing resources by maintaining networks, installing new hardware and software, and managing network security. Most of these tasks are automated, a process known as “orchestration.” As factory systems add more software and smart devices, they are becoming more like IT systems and need to be managed in a similar way.
At the junction between IT and OT, the Industrial Edge is the right place to perform orchestration tasks such as application management (AM) and device management (DM). AM manages the deployment of configuration and runtime software, and tracks versions. The latter is critical in validated processes in regulated industries such as pharmaceutical. DM performs a similar task for configuration and firmware version tracking of industrial devices. In addition, Edge platform functionality can also include user management (user access and privileges) and configuration management (determine which devices are allowed on the network).
Siemens Industrial Edge: An Open Ecosystem for Apps and Devices at the Edge and in the Cloud
The Edge and the Cloud go together, especially in the growing market for industrial applications. While sensors and embedded PCs collect and process data at the Edge, many industrial apps have Cloud-based components that process, store and share these data with other stakeholders.
With the 2019 acquisition of an edge computing platform, Siemens launched a solution that creates an open ecosystem for hosting and managing edge apps and devices. The Siemens Industrial Edge packages, deploys and orchestrates applications through containerization, allowing end users to run apps on edge or on-premise servers without any specific hardware configuration. Using Docker containerization, users can extend cloud applications to edge devices in factories from a central location, making it easier to manage large-scale, geographically distributed infrastructure. This model is especially attractive for machine builders that seek a more standardized and easy way of deploying and managing software to machines installed around the world.
Siemens’ offering for the Industrial Edge has evolved into a full ecosystem of hardware and software solutions that add “shopfloor IT” capabilities to automation systems.
Industrial Edge Management (IEM) is the tool used to deploy and manage software at the Edge, and to manage Edge devices.
Keeping the Lid on Apps
The IEM tool helps users deploy and manage software in containers. Popular in the IT world and increasingly used in industrial applications, containerization allows software to run reliably and uniformly regardless of where it is deployed. All apps, including customer-individual and third-party apps from ecosystem partners, are managed virtually in individual containers using Kubernetes monitoring. This is like running apps in virtual machines (VM), except that containers have a much smaller footprint because they share the host machine’s operating system (OS) rather than running an OS in each VM. A single host using a containerization engine shares the OS kernel with other containers, while each keeps its own isolated user space. Should an app crash, the rest of the system is not affected. This reduces overhead, uses resources more efficiently, and improves system performance and availability.
The independence and compact size of containerized apps means that they can be transferred quickly and seamlessly from one host to the next, whether a public cloud, private cloud (on-premise), or at the Edge. The IEM allows users to track versions of each app and configuration, a must-have feature in regulated industries.
Keeping Track of Devices
Another key feature of IEM is device management, and standard IT practice that is now being adopted in the industrial world as the number of connected devices grows rapidly. Using the Edge Device Builder Kit, smart devices become “edge-enabled” by installing integrated and industry-ready firmware on them. Once they are integrated into the Siemens Industrial Edge Device environment, devices can be configured via the integrated configuration tool, which enables a wealth of functions like user and access management as well as security to ensure ease of operation. Typical device types range from PLCs and IPCs of different performance classes, to virtual machines and infrastructure devices like switches.
An Open Marketplace for Industrial Edge Apps
Users may choose to configure and deploy their own apps, but many will want to take advantage of commercially available apps that can be purchased and downloaded from the Siemens Industrial Edge Marketplace. This online appstore offers a variety of solutions created by Siemens, for example, for analytics, data storage, connectivity, preventive maintenance and energy management. In addition, the appstore offers third party apps that have been tested and approved by Siemens. The company expects over 200 partner companies to sell applications in the Industrial Edge Marketplace.
As its role evolves, the Industrial Edge has become the “last mile” for industrial machinery. In addition to providing connectivity between IT and OT systems, the Industrial Edge is now the IT platform within OT that creates a safe space for automation systems to be managed like IT systems, but with tools that consider the specific needs and priorities of industrial applications. Some argue that the Edge is temporary and will go away once automation systems become true IoT devices. But if the requirements of IT and OT differ, the Edge will be there to ensure that these requirements are met.
For end users: The Edge is the place where software and devices are managed, company-wide security updates are scheduled, patches are managed, and operations are supervised with a centralized admin view across multiple plant sites. Managing industrial systems in this way promises huge gains in efficiency and uptime over current methods.
For machine builders, equipment providers and system integrators: The Edge has become a critical part of a complete IT plant solution. The Edge can be used during commissioning to roll out device configurations and software quickly and in an orderly fashion. Moreover, an Edge platform can serve as the gateway for remote services, enabling completely new business models for aftersales revenue streams.
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Keywords: Siemens, Industrial Edge, Cloud, Edge Apps, MindSphere, IT/OT Convergence, ARC Advisory Group.