5 Key Challenges Facing the Industrial Internet of Things

The Industrial Internet of Things shows every indication of rapidly transforming everything from agriculture to municipal management to energy generation and manufacturing, but it faces five potential obstacles.

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The traditional design and augmentation of industrial systems tends to go one of two ways: either you add functionality by tacking on vendor-defined black boxes, or you design a proprietary or custom end-to-end solution.

The former can be implemented rapidly, but typically makes it difficult to acquire and analyze the data generated. Sure, you'll be able to acquire the data after a catastrophic failure to determine what happened, but forget about continuous monitoring and real-time adjustments to improve efficiency and prevent system downtime.

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Meanwhile, the latter can mean a well-integrated system in which data can easily be shared, but proprietary communication protocols mean the whole system itself is essentially a black box.

"As soon as an update is required, the engineer faces the dilemma of tacking on a solution that may not communicate well with the whole system or of starting the process over and creating a new end-to-end solution," the NI report says.

"If you've got a lot of black box systems, if they don't communicate well together, then you're missing the whole point of the industrial Internet," Starkloff says.

Security Is a Key Issue

Security too, is paramount in industrial Internet applications. These applications can be built on tens of thousands of sensor nodes, increasing your threat surface area by orders of magnitude. And bad data injected into your system has the potential to be as damaging as data extracted from your systems via data breach.

"As massive networks of systems come online, these systems need to communicate with each other and with the enterprise, often over vast distances," the report says. "Both the systems and the communications need to be secure, or millions of dollars' worth of assets are put at risk. One of the most prevalent examples of the need for security is the smart grid, which is on the leading edge of the IIoT. As information on the grid becomes more accessible, so does the damage a security breach can inflict."

The IIoT Must Be Built for Maintenance and Updates

Industrial Internet components need to be built with maintenance and updates in mind. Industrial systems need to be continually modified and maintained to meet changing requirements.

[Related: How to Develop Applications for the Internet of Things ]

"As more capabilities are added, software updates are needed or more systems must be added," the report says. "Soon a tangled web of interconnected components starts to form. The new system has to integrate not only with the original system but also all of the other systems. Imagine modifying or updating thousands or millions of systems located all over the world, including some in remote locations."

Investing in Flexibility Is Crucial

Industrial infrastructure is no small investment. NI believes that developing and deploying industrial Internet systems will represent a massive investment for decades to come. That means it's not enough to simply think about today's needs or even immediate future needs when deciding where to invest. To be capable of adapting to changing requirements over time, you need to build on open, integrated hardware and software platforms, and you need a real-time network that can scale with new technologies.

"The only way to meet the needs of today and tomorrow is not by predicting the future but by deploying a network of systems flexible enough to evolve and adapt," the report says. "The way forward involves a platform-based approach; a single flexible hardware architecture deployed across many applications removes a substantial amount of the hardware complexity and makes each new problem primarily a software challenge. The same principle must be applied to software tools to form a powerful hardware-software platform that creates a unified solution. An effective platform-based approach does not focus on hardware or software but instead on the innovation within the application itself."

Starkloff notes that organizations like the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the AVnu Alliance (a consortium dedicated to interoperability for Time-Sensitive Networking) are working hard to define standards for the IIoT.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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