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Availability in the cloud

There is a huge buzz around the issue of cloud computing in manufacturing. It's already forcing some providers to re-position their products and services in relation to it, as the first wave of implementations come to fruition. The question is, why is this happening and can cloud computing truly be transferred from the world of corporate IT to the shop floor? Here Mike Lees, business manager for HardwarePT, the industrial computing division of SolutionsPT, explains why he believes that the whole issue comes down to one word: availability.  

It's important to recognise that cloud computing in engineering isn't always driven by the manufacturing department. More often, it has its roots in the corporate IT strategy. The step into the cloud is normally about the benefits it delivers at enterprise level and not just the specific needs of the plant floor. This isn't to say there aren't benefits for manufacturing teams; they just aren't necessarily the prime drivers.  

It is fair to say that the manufacturing and engineering industries normally lag behind the rest of business and industry in terms of technology uptake. Cloud computing is no exception. 

The reasons for the lag are not only cultural, but also practical. They relate to the continued availability of critical systems, the relative complexity of applying software updates and patches in industry, when compared to commerce, and the bandwidth requirements for handling massive amounts of complex data. All of these mean that you can't simply apply a new technology like cloud computing overnight. It requires a planning process which will certainly last for months and often for years. 

However, the reality is that the cloud is really the combination of a number of existing technologies that are already understood, and often already in use by engineers. This could mean its implementation might flow more quickly than expected as could the fact that one of its core components and arguably its precursor, virtualisation, is already common in manufacturing. 

This suggests that, if you haven't already seen cloud on the shop floor you can expect to see it soon. The fundamental reason for its adoption, as with virtualisation, will be availability. When availability becomes a reason for taking advantage of the cloud, instead of a concern about its implementation, we will see massively increased take up. 

Should manufacturing put its trust in the cloud? 
In order to decide whether manufacturing is right to put its trust in the cloud, one has to consider what the implications of any potential downtime are, from a production and safety perspective. If you work in a steel mill or paper mill, a day's downtime could cost millions or tens of millions, so you will already understand the danger. 

There are multiple factors that need to be taken into account when deciding whether cloud computing could contribute to, or alleviate, downtime in your plant. Amongst the first is security. Stuxnet, the malware developed to target SIEMENS SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) software both proved the importance of security in industry and demonstrated that even older control technologies, such as PLCs, aren't immune. 

If Stuxnet did primarily target highly secure uranium enrichment plants, as is suspected in some quarters, it's clear that no industry is immune to malware, worms and viruses. As a result of this, and the increased integration of corporate and industrial IT technologies, we are likely to see an increased intensity of focus on industrial security. In fact, SolutionsPT is set to launch Tofino, an industrial security system, designed specifically for SCADA later in 2011. 

As well as malicious attacks, ongoing IT support and updates are another issue that cloud computing raises in industrial applications. In manufacturing, we are used to the fit-and-forget model, but in both corporate IT and our general lives we expect both system updates and the associated downtime to be a regular occurrence. In fact, we are strangely tolerant towards it; we don't mind our PC taking fifteen minutes to restart itself every couple of months when it installs updates. But in industry we can't tolerate this; those fifteen minutes alone could be very costly!    

Hand in hand with the fit and forget model goes the comparative longevity of an industrial IT system and a corporate IT system. As we know, our desktop PCs are likely to be replaced every few years. Even Macs are only likely to last half a decade at the most and servers also have a limited lifespan. However, in the industrial world it isn't incredibly unusual to find systems that are still running Windows 95 and it's common to find software applications which aren't compatible with Windows 7 or even Vista. As a result, some of the enterprise wide update implementation benefits of cloud computing may not be as useful in a manufacturing environment. 

Finally, the 'on demand' applications that are used in cloud computing may also not be particularly useful in industry. While 'on demand' accounting software and office functionality might be ideal for the back office, on the shop floor, where the work is done that forms the backbone of the business, it's less appropriate. Much of the software used in these environments is highly specific and specialised. Furthermore, because demand is normally constant and defined it's rare that additional bandwidth needs to be added at the last minute. 

Is manufacturing already putting its trust in the cloud?
Unsurprisingly, we are seeing the first applications of cloud computing coming in business focussed applications, such as MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems) and the associated systems, such as plant historians and track and trace functions. 

This kind of application is much more readily adapted to the cloud than, for example, SCADA would be because they sit higher in the accepted plant hierarchy. The higher up the manufacturing pyramid a piece of technology sits, the more likely it is to be able to move into the cloud.  

Equally, thin and ultra thin client computing is an increasingly popular technology in manufacturing, particularly where provision of a graphical user interface is the principle function of the machine. It's also an industrial IT application that lends itself in immediate and obvious ways to cloud computing. If information processing is being performed at server, rather than client level, there is no real need for that server to be local; it can just as easily be located in the cloud. In fact, thin client technology is often introduced as part of a virtualisation project, which by definition makes it only one step away from cloud computing. 

What are the benefits of cloud from a plant floor perspective? 
I've already talked about some of the potential drawbacks of cloud computing - but there are substantial benefits as well. The key benefit is improved access to data for both optimisation and business planning purposes. However, this isn't the only advantage, one can already see recipe and process uploads, software updates for peripheral devices and project extranet style simultaneous file editing in action in the UK. The latter has a particular benefit in terms of eliminating manufacturing change and re-work by more effectively sharing information.  

However, for me the key benefit is that cloud is a useful tag that ties together several technologies that are all about the holy grail of manufacturing: availability. This concept has to be at the root of the decisions we make about cloud and, in my opinion, at the heart of all the decisions we make about industrial computing. 

If the cloud can be made to improve the IT security of a plant, instead of detracting from it, then that's a factor that can improve availability. If it can be made to improve the continuity of supply or the flow of support services, then that is an availability benefit. If it can be used as a way of integrating legacy systems with more modern computing environments, then that is an availability benefit. When addressed correctly, the drawbacks of cloud computing can also become its advantages. 

For instance, SolutionsPT has recently launched a Smartphone application that draws uploaded plant data from the cloud and allows users to access it anywhere via their Smartphone. The software comes in the form of a free app, called SmartGlance, which is downloadable from the Blackberry and Apple app stores and there will soon be Android and Microsoft Phone 7 versions available. 

What this illustrates is that the responsive nature of the cloud can be applied even in the traditionally slower world of manufacturing. It also demonstrates that the cloud is so intrinsically linked to the wider world of computing and telecoms that it's inevitable that it will weave its way into the industrial environment and begin to deliver benefits. 

However, although cloud computing is inevitable, it's not necessarily the case that we should all sign up without a second thought. Cloud computing should be a planned and considered move for a manufacturing business, for all the reasons we have discussed. If you can improve availability using a cloud solution, it's the right move - if you can't, then the course of action should be to retain your localised servers. 
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