Industrial control systems are the physical backbone of communications between devices in factories, offices and municipalities, typically working in isolation from IT departments. The convergence of these physical and digital assets is often referred to as Industry 4.0, a merger of controls and cognitive technologies poised to revolutionise industrial operations. Though nearly a decade old, one of these technologies, IoT, is still being defined. 


The huge investments that have already been made in this domain by asset owners must be preserved, even as they prepare to take the next step and fully embrace IoT. But adding internet connectivity to legacy devices and management systems, is only the first step in delivering smarter buildings, industries and cities. 


In the IT world, the main requirement is the efficient movement of data between clients and servers over high bandwidth connections. As a result, the communications and data models used throughout can differ significantly, as they are often defined by the application and industry groups. 


The challenge, which is only now becoming fully apparent, is how to overcome these barriers to interoperability from an application, networking and services perspective. To address this new challenge for old systems, it will be necessary to establish a seamless, yet secure way of allowing new technology to access the data offered by legacy systems and understand its inherent meaning. 


An abstract art 


The solution is to use technology to provide enough abstraction between the two domains. This provides simple access to data across the entire infrastructure, wherever it is generated and however it may be transmitted/consumed. The need for abstraction is also applicable to the critical network services needed to run industrial processes, including device discovery, device creation and data monitoring/logging. In these instances, abstraction helps remove artificial barriers between device types, manufacturers and the protocols used. 


Through this abstraction layer, it will be easier to not only manage operational technology (OT) systems, but actually extend them to include new functionality that may take place outside of traditional industrial workstations or human machine interfaces (HMIs). The system will be able to discover new sensors and services in a way that is manageable for both OT system integrators and cloud-based IT service providers. 


As an answer to this, Adesto promotes the IoT Access Protocol (IAP), an open protocol now being standardised through ANSI and CTA, providing a common interface layer between the OT and IT environments, using application programming interfaces (APIs) that are familiar to developers in both domains.


Controlling the cloud

The protocol enables simple access to data and services using the REST architectural style and MQTT messaging protocol, with support for the JSON file format. Standardising data, device and resource types commonly used in industrial systems, the APIs enable highly flexible architectures and cost-effective sharing of workloads between the edge and the cloud. These APIs are hardware independent; they give IT professionals access to the OT domain, without worrying about underlying protocols. 


Conversely, existing industrial control subsystems can use IAP to interface more easily with cloud services. An IAP approach can help protect the investment made in OT control systems, by making it simpler to adapt an interface to both new and old parts of the system. 


If the IoT is to live up to its hype, it will be necessary to simplify the interface between legacy systems and the IoT. By implementing IAP, developers at all levels will be less dependent on needing to understand how the network operates at a low level, in order to benefit from it at a higher level. The IAP has the potential to encourage interoperability and have far reaching implications as building management systems become the latest extension to the IoT: the new ‘edge’.


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