Benefits of the Cloud for Real-Time Data

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.

Real-Time Data Flow in the Cloud

When we talk about putting real-time data into the cloud, what we mean is data flow in the cloud, or data communications. Most cloud applications today work on the premise of storing data in the cloud, and then accessing it at some later time. What we are interested in here is dynamic data, where a value can change 10 times or 100 or even 1,000 times per second, and be passed immediately along at pretty much that same rate. This is the kind of data flow that is commonly used in industrial processes, and which may have significant implications for cloud computing in general.

Paul Maritz, President & CEO, VMware touched on this in August in his keynote address on the future of cloud computing at VMWorld 2011. He said, “People are going to have to be able to react to information coming in, in real time. If you’re going to service the Facebook generation they way that they want to see information, you’re going to have to give them customized information in the context that they want to see it, in real time.”

Support for real-time communication has been evolving in the industrial sector over the past few decades. Control systems used to be considered “islands of automation”, and any data sharing between systems was done by jotting notes on a clipboard and making phone calls, or perhaps by copying data to a floppy disk, and carrying it to another machine over the “sneakernet”. With the advent of the LAN and Windows 3.1 in the 1990s, protocols like ArcNet, NetBIOS, and NetDDE were developed, but stability was a major issue.

Since then, a lot of thought and effort have gone into developing protocols for real-time communications for industrial data. Modern processes now benefit from more stable, routable protocols like TCP/IP and OPC for distributed processing. Today, machine operators can leave the control room when necessary, and walk through the plant, viewing their process data in real time on a hand-held computer. Managers are able to monitor production on the factory floor in real time, from their office, at home, or even on the road, using real-time data displays over proprietary networks.

Now people are starting to ask for this kind of reliable, high-speed data communication in the cloud. There are some real opportunities here. In addition to monitoring factory data and connecting machines, the cloud opens new possibilities. For example, data from embedded devices and remote sensors anywhere in the world could be collected from any location and sent to your laptop or phone in real time. Automobile navigation systems could become aware of the other cars on the road. The consumer applications envisioned by Paul Maritz will soon become reality.

Of course, there is the vision of data flow in the cloud, and then there is reality. Is all of this really doable? In the coming weeks and months, we will look at some of the practical aspects of how real-time data might be enabled to flow freely and securely through the cloud, and we’ll keep you up to date with the latest developments in the field. But before we do that, next week we’ll take a look at the specific benefits of cloud computing for users of real-time data.

Stepping into the Unknown

It seems like everybody is moving to the cloud these days.  Visionaries in the IT world see cloud computing as the next logical step in the evolution from mainframes and terminals, through networked PCs, to web-based applications, and now onward to the cloud.  They tout the advantages of lower costs and flexibility, estimating that by 2015 over half of computing solutions worldwide will be cloud-based.  Even now, everyone from pop stars and politicians on Twitter to grandmothers with Gmail to the titans of IBM, Microsoft, VMWare, and Amazon are getting into the act.

So what about industrial applications?  We hear the topic raised every now and then about the practicality of putting factory data in the cloud, mixed with a fair bit of skepticism.  Control engineers and managers responsible for the smooth operation of multi-million dollar production lines, power plants, or pipelines are justifiably cautious to embrace a technology that will move their data to some unspecified location, off in a “cloud” somewhere.  “What about security?” they ask.  “Who will have access to my system?”  “What if the network goes down?”

At the same time, there is a growing demand in plants and production systems for what a cloud-based system should be able to deliver.  More and more companies are operating in multiple locations–across nations, continents and oceans.  Managers need web-based access to their data for remote monitoring and in some cases, control.  Decision-makers and analysts in central offices need access to the most recent production-line data.  Expertise needs to be shared more quickly and cost-effectively than by loading a technician onto a plane, truck, or donkey to go out into the field.

However, industrial computing is different from most of IT.  Our security requirements are more stringent, our applications are typically linked to production machinery and embedded systems, and we often work with real-time data.  What does cloud computing look like in this environment?  Can real-time systems run in the cloud?  Is the cloud necessary, or even possible?

When we consider cloud computing for real-time data, we are stepping into the unknown, to some degree.  We are all learning here.  “Don’t think you have all the answers,” once quipped my business professor to a group of his eager-beaver undergraduates, “you don’t even know the questions yet.”

In that spirit, this blog will provide an opportunity to explore the questions, watch the developments, and evaluate solutions for one of the biggest challenges of our time: how to implement cloud computing using real-time data for industrial and embedded applications.