Industry Embraces Big Data

We blogged about Big Data six years ago. Back then, pushing industrial data to the cloud in real time was a novel idea. Collecting industrial data within the plant for on-site use had been going on for decades, but few companies were integrating that data with enterprise IT or analytical systems.

Today, all that is changing. IoT and Industrie 4.0 are ideal for connecting industrial processes to Big Data. Progressive companies routinely use digital transformation to feed analytical systems to improve performance across the enterprise. Others are taking notice, trying to catch up. A recent research project by Automation World points to the growing rate of acceptance and adoption of Big Data among system integrators and end users, and how they leverage it.

Half of the system integrators in the study report that most or all of their clients collect production data to run improvement analysis. A quarter of the end-users surveyed say that they collect data from over 76% of their systems and devices.

While most of the data being collected is for in-plant improvements in equipment and maintenance operations, somewhere between 40% and 54% is also being used for Industry 4.0, smart manufacturing, or digital transformation initiatives. Pulling Big Data from the shop floor has become that important in just a few years time.

Data collection technologies

Despite the move towards Big Data, the most widely-used approaches to collecting data are still hand-written notes entered into a spreadsheet, as well as on-site data historians, according to the report. So for many users, the technology hasn’t changed significantly since the 1980s. However, cloud and edge technologies are gaining acceptance, being used at some level in about one fourth of the facilities reported on.

The survey didn’t specifically address it, but we see that some technologies originally developed for in-plant use—most notably data historians—are now widely used in edge and cloud scenarios. Some of the most well-known real-time data historians have cloud equivalents, or can be run on cloud servers. As a result, there is no clear line between traditional data collection and IoT-based systems, and there doesn’t need to be.

What is needed is secure, real-time data communication between the plant and the office or cloud. As high-quality data communication is more widely adopted, and as companies implement digital transformation in more areas, we can expect to see a huge growth in Big Data applications to optimize resource use, increase production efficiencies, and bolster the profits of the enterprise.

North Sea Oil-to-Wind Transition

Way back in 2018 the Norwegian oil company Statoil changed its name to Equinor. This marked a clear shift in company policy, a transition to broader range of energy sources such as wind and solar. That change was highlighted in a recent Supplier Day event held during the Offshore Northern Seas (ONS) 2022 event at company headquarters in Stavanger, Norway. Over the course of two hours, it became clear that Equinor invites its suppliers to make this transition with them.

“We really want to progress the acceleration of the energy transition together,” said Mette H. Ottøy, chief procurement officer for Equinor. She told the audience of well-established providers of equipment and supplies for offshore oil and gas extraction that the company will now be looking for new suppliers of renewables, as well as those that can make the transition.

“I think we will need a whole range of different suppliers,” she said, “those competent and experienced within oil and gas, and new suppliers within renewables and low-carbon solutions.” Then she added, “And suppliers that have been with us for a long time within oil and gas that are actually able to transform themselves, that is also something that we are working on.”

Making the Transition

The transition has been interesting so far. Spoken presentations were punctuated by videos of Equinor suppliers installing oil platforms and erecting offshore wind turbines. You could see the similarity of technology and hardware needed to construct platform bases and wind-turbine pylons on the ocean floor—structures capable of supporting the necessary equipment. Certainly those engineering and construction companies are well-positioned to make the transition, with perhaps some adjustments in product design and implementation.

From our side, the transition is even easier. Data is data, after all. Whether it comes from an oil platform or a wind turbine, a secure, robust connection between the offshore equipment and onshore facilities is vital for safe and efficient operations. The same, secure DataHub tunnelling technology that Equinor has been using for years works equally well for renewable energy sources as it does for oil and gas. And the Equinor suppliers that also use DataHub technology will have an effortless transition as well.

Safety and Cybersecurity

Safety is the number one priority at Equinor. And for connecting remote systems through networking, that means cybersecurity. “Interconnected industry is what we have become,” Ottøy said. “We share data, we share systems, and links, and like it or not, an attack on one is an attack on several, and sometimes it’s actually an attack on all. Cybersecurity is becoming increasingly important, and digitalization of the energy industry is something that is increasing that risk, no doubt.”

This issue is front of mind for many in the industry: how to gain access to production data without compromising on cybersecurity. It is possible—with the right approach. Our recent white paper, Accessing Production Data vs Cybersecurity? Why not both? explains the challenges, pitfalls, and best practices in detail.

As the world faces ever-worsening effects of climate change, we fully support Equinor in their initiative to transition from traditional to renewable energy sources and low carbon technologies. We are pleased to see the company respond to the needs of the times, and equally pleased to play a part in making their transition a success.

Calling for Resilience

Tough times demand tough measures.  A recent convergence of three disruptive forces on industrial automation calls for resilience, according to the report of a recent survey from Claroty, The Global State Of Industrial Cybersecurity 2021: Resilience Amid Disruption.  These forces are: an increase in ransomware attacks, accelerated digital transformation, and a growing trend towards working remotely. What’s needed is more investment in improved technology and the hiring and training of staff, according to the majority of the 1,100 IT and OT (operations technology) security professionals interviewed.

The number of ransomware attacks sustained by industrial enterprises, and the costs involved, are staggering.  A full 80% of the companies surveyed were hit, including a breach of their OT/ICS (industrial control systems) for more than half of them.  Over 60% paid the ransom, with an average payment of around $500,000 USD, and over $5,000,000 for some.  That doesn’t count the cost of lost production downtime, which for the companies surveyed ranges from tens of thousands to millions of dollars per hour.

At the same time, the need for networking industrial data is stronger than ever.  Fully 90% of these companies report that they sped up adoption of digital transformation since the start of the pandemic, and don’t anticipate turning back.  Adding to that, working remotely has become a new normal.  Just 21% of the companies surveyed had their full staff working onsite in 2021, and only 27% expect to have everyone back working onsite after the pandemic.

Secure data communications are vital

Taken together these trends indicate a strong demand for secure data communications.  Claroty, the industrial cyber security company that sponsored the survey, offers five technical and procedural  recommendations.  For data communications, the report said maintaining proper segmentation between OT and IT networks can be a highly effective defense against ransomware:

“There are many business processes and applications that need to communicate across the IT/OT boundary, so organizations need to ensure this is done in a secure way. Ensuring an organization’s OT network and assets are isolated from IT in a manner that aligns with segmentation best practices can be a highly effective means of stopping the lateral spread of ransomware and other malware from IT to OT.”

Responding to this need for network isolation, Skkynet offers a wide range of secure solutions for in-plant, OT/IT, and cloud connectivity.  Industrial enterprises large and small have come to recognize the value of our secure-by-design approach that gives them full access to their production data while keeping their OT networks secure behind DMZs and fully closed firewalls.  Skkynet’s software and services answer the call for resilience.

Real-Time Manufacturing Trends

The world of industrial automation is changing rapidly, generating a need for real-time manufacturing.  Most industrialized nations are seeing their economies shift from labor-rich to labor-scarce, forcing plants to automate to keep costs down.  At the same time, consumers are demanding more customized products and sustainable use of resources, which requires smarter and more versatile production lines.  Adding to the challenge, obtaining raw materials and parts has become less predictable since the start of the pandemic, creating a need for more dynamic and flexible supply chains.

Responding to these circumstances, executives and managers are increasingly adopting new ways of managing their businesses, according to Bill Lydon at  In a recent report, The Digitalization Dozen, he wrote: “The foundations of manufacturing and production are being reshaped by their integration into a comprehensive real-time business system, creating more efficient and responsive production to increase sales and profits.”

Real-time data

Real-time business systems rely on real-time data.  ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems of the past were not directly synchronized with operations, providing data that was weeks or months old.  That led to the use of MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems) which are quicker, but add a layer of cost, complexity, and fragility.  What is needed, according to Lydon, is to rebuild the enterprise as a real-time manufacturing business.

A few pioneering companies have read the writing on the wall, and are now looking at ways to implement the necessary changes.  Melanie Kalmar, spokesperson for Dow Corporation said, “We are really focused on being a real-time company, using and leveraging the data we have to drive better decisions, be a more sustainable company, and a favored company.”

Many others will follow, says Lydon.  He explains how digital communication in real time unifies the corporate vision by providing accurate and timely data for interested parties throughout the enterprise, as well as among suppliers and customers.  This data transparency keeps employees at all levels well informed, improving their decisions, which leads in turn to greater success.

Closed-loop operations

Lydon envisions a digital manufacturing architecture that is real-time, synchronized, and optimized through the use of “closed loop operations of IT and Operational Technology OT groups.”  By this he means that data coming from sensors and field equipment, edge devices, plant or process operations gets passed in real time to business systems like digital twin models and analytical tools, including artificial intelligence engines.  These systems pass commands back to the OT systems in a closed loop, all in real time.

Needless to say, this must all be based on secure, bidirectional real-time data communications.  Security is essential because plant and operations networks must be kept isolated, completely separate from business networks.  And robust, bidirectional real-time communication is necessary for closed-loop performance.  Otherwise it would be like driving a car with a three-second lag between the steering wheel, brake pedal, and tires―a recipe for disaster.

Other trends

Two other trends in industrial automation are helping make real-time manufacturing work.  The first is wide-spread use of open standards like TCP and OPC (Open Process Communication).  Open data communication standards like these give multiple vendors a chance to compete and contribute, which brings new ideas and more product choices for system designers and integrators.  Industrial systems are complex, with a wide variety of sensors, devices, tools, machines, and other components that need to be connected seamlessly.  Standard protocols make these connections possible.

A second trend is towards less programming, by using off-the-shelf software and services.  These make it easier, faster, and cheaper for a system integrator to test, build, and deliver a working automation system. A generation of engineers who had to build solutions from scratch is retiring, just as systems are growing more complex.  The new generation understands the value of using ready-made tools to quickly implement solutions, rather than starting from the ground up on each new project.

From our perspective, these trends all point towards a need for products and services that provide secure, real-time industrial data communications.  Our latest release, DataHub 10, runs both on-site or in the cloud, connects OT to IT securely through DMZs, and supports real-time networking of live and historical data. It is well positioned to lead the way for digital and real-time manufacturing.

White House Pushes for Security

Since the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline last month, the US government has become more vocal on the need for industrial cybersecurity. A recent memo from the White House to corporate executives and business leaders across the country urges them to protect their companies against hackers. Among the action items is the need to segment networks, to isolate OT from IT.

“It’s critically important that your corporate business functions and manufacturing/production operations are separated,” the memo states, “and that you carefully filter and limit internet access to operational networks, identify links between these networks and develop workarounds or manual controls to ensure ICS networks can be isolated and continue operating if your corporate network is compromised.”

The memo says that although the government is leading the fight against cyber attacks of all kinds, the private sector is also expected to play their part. They are urged to back up data, update systems, and test response plans and implementations. The memo also listed five best practices from the president’s Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity Executive Order, including:

  1. Multifactor authentication
  2. Endpoint detection
  3. Response to an incursion
  4. Encryption
  5. A capable security team
Isolate Control Networks

Most of the recommendations could apply to any system or network exposed to the Internet, but the White House also included one directly related to industrial systems: Segment your networks to protect operations. Industrial control system networks, it says, should be isolated so they can continue operating even when the management network is compromised.

This was the case with the Colonial Pipeline incident last month. Although the hack caused turmoil in the company and a week of problems for the whole East Coast of the US, it could have been much worse. If the hackers had been able to take control of the pipeline itself, we might have witnessed physical damage both to property and the environment.

To avoid such problems, isolating control networks is critical. This is best accomplished using a DMZ, a “demilitarized zone” that separates control systems from management systems. Using a DMZ ensures that there is no direct link between corporate networks and control networks, and that only known and authenticated actors can enter the system at all.

Skkynet recommends using a DMZ for OT/IT networking, and provides the software needed to seamlessly pass industrial data across a DMZ-enabled connection. Most industrial protocols require opening a firewall to access the data, but Skkynet’s patented DataHub architecture keeps all inbound firewall ports closed on both the control and corporate sides, while still allowing real-time, two-way data communication through the DMZ.

We are pleased to see support for securing industrial control systems coming from the White House and US government, as well as governments and agencies throughout the industrialized world. A more secure environment will keep costs down and production running smoothly by keeping hackers out of our control systems.

Emergency at Colonial Pipeline

Another ransomware attack hit the headlines last week.  This time it’s Colonial Pipeline, the largest in the USA by some estimates, 8,850 km long, with carrying capacity of over 3 million barrels of petroleum products.  The attack has prompted the US Department of Transportation to issue an emergency declaration, easing restrictions on overland transport of supply by truck, a necessary but high-cost alternative for the company.

Colonial is wisely reluctant to release details, so we might never know exactly who did this or how it happened.  But that’s not the point.  One way or another, a malicious actor may have compromised a node on the IT network, which could have been used as a staging ground to launch an attack on the OT (Operations Technology) network.

What we do know is how to prevent that kind of attack from spreading.  There should be no need for emergency declarations.  As we have discussed previously, most people in the know―from government regulators and standards agencies to top management and on-site engineering staff―understand that you must isolate your networks.  In this age of cloud, IoT, and digital transformation, when it is becoming possible to connect everything together, we also need to implement ways to keep things separate.

A Well-Known Solution

Isolating a control network from an IT network is not difficult.  The technology has been around for decades.  It involves inserting a defensive layer, a DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between the two networks, and using firewalls to protect them.

The challenge lies in moving production data securely across the DMZ in real time.  This is where Skkynet’s DataHub technology shines.  The DataHub can connect to equipment and SCADA systems on the industrial side, and pass that data through the DMZ to the IT side, without opening any firewall ports on either side.

We hope Colonial Pipeline recovers quickly from this emergency, and that oil and gas will soon begin to flow again up the East Coast of the USA.  Meanwhile, we encourage others to heed this wake-up call.  The attack surface of an entire company is huge.  Persistent hackers are bound to find their way in, eventually.  The best way to prevent damage to the production systems is to isolate the corporate network from the control network and insert a DMZ.  They may get that far, but no farther.