A quick overview of any article or story about cloud computing will give you some idea of the benefits–greater flexibility and reduced cost. This common wisdom can be successfully applied to real-time applications to some degree. However, a process environment is different than an office or home, so we may find that the idea of benefits takes on a different form at times.
For example, one of the key benefits of the cloud for many companies is the flexibility to quickly ramp up their computing power for unusually large, one-time events such as end-of-the-year tax processing. This type of requirement is not so often needed for process control systems. But many of the other benefits of cloud computing do apply. Here are some ways that we believe users of real-time data may benefit from moving to the cloud:
Lower installation and maintenance costs
Cloud systems reduce the need for an end user to install hardware and software, moving much of the infrastructure to the cloud service provider. This results in reduced cost and time to install, and lower ongoing maintenance costs. Fewer IT staff are required to maintain a system based on cloud technology, as the locally hosted applications are simpler, and the client applications (web browsers) require no additional maintenance.
Reduced capital expenses
Cloud systems are normally delivered on a cost-per-use basis, or a flat monthly fee. This moves a large portion of the cost of implementation from a corporation’s capital budget to its operating budget. Costs are deferred into the future, and can be predicted with accuracy. Many valuable projects are never done simply because the initial capital costs are too high. Cloud systems remove this funding problem.
Globalization of production makes it necessary to gain access to process control systems from remote locations. Modern companies are willing to off-shore their production but not so willing to off-shore their technical expertise. Remote monitoring systems allow technology companies to take advantage of the low costs of production in other countries (often with lower standards of legal and IP protection) without exposing their corporate expertise and trade secrets to those countries.
Remote access directly into a process control system is inherently risky. It requires openings in firewalls and exposure of the process control system to the Internet. Cloud systems hugely reduce this risk by separating the remote access server from the process control system. The process control system can operate inside a corporate firewall without any incoming ports open, while still being able to push data to the cloud. This connection can be made uni-directional to ensure that even if the cloud system is compromised, it cannot be used to make control changes on the plant system.
Cloud systems can improve efficiency. Managers, analysts, engineers and other specialists are able to examine the workings of the process in real-time. This gives them faster insight into the process, and the ability to work with and react to the true behaviour of the system. A cloud system, properly implemented, can provide data rate and latencies of milliseconds. This can be crucial to a remote engineer when trying to study high-speed transients and process dynamics. Managers and analysts make better decisions when they have access to timely data. Maintenance personnel are able to reduce process downtime when they can observe changes to the process dynamics quickly, and can receive immediate feedback when process or equipment errors occur.
With this general understanding of the benefits of the cloud under our belts, for the next few weeks we’ll start to consider the unique requirements of a real-time cloud system. It can’t be quite like a traditional SCADA system, nor can it be exactly like a consumer-oriented or business cloud system. It will have to be something a little different.