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.