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The “Industrial” Internet of Things and the Industrial Internet Consortium

By Earl Perkins | March 28, 2014 | 0 Comments

SecurityOperational TechnologyInternet of ThingsOT Security

In my previous blog I took some time to explain the differences between what Gartner has referred to as operational technology (OT) systems and the Internet of Things (IoT). The announcement on March 27 by some significant technology companies regarding the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) highlights this discussion about precision in language. For AT&T, Cisco, General Electric, IBM and Intel to work to a common OT and IoT script is significant– if that is what is happening. Let’s examine this move and its effect on OT and the IoT industry.

Terms such as the “Industrial Internet” or the “Industrial Internet of Things” (IIoT) have been in the media and in marketing materials for some time now. Most companies recognize that an inflection point in technology use is taking place, and I think the IIC wants to call attention to the change and the need for action as a result. While I believe it is important to have a term or phrase that catches the eye of decision-makers affected by OT and the IoT, it is important that the phrase reflect accurately what a company or service provider is attempting to sell. If the purpose of the phrase “Industrial Internet of Things” is to (1) capture buyer attention and (2) once captive explain what it means and how the IIoT affects the buyer’s business, that’s fine. I’m concerned about whether or not that second step will actually occur and if the consortium’s message yesterday and during the briefing reflects that intent.

OT has existed in enterprises and in the market far longer than the IoT. I sometimes say that OT was using IoT architecture and technology before it was cool to talk about the IoT. The industrial control and automation world built fit-for-purpose systems with technology that used RFID tags, M2M communications, embedded systems, sensors, wireless communications and other IoT components literally for decades. The IIoT can be considered as the next generation of OT architecture and technology that will update and extend OT functionality, utilizing IoT use cases and technology improvements. The Industrial Internet is OT Version 2. The IIoT is that industrial subset of the IoT. In addition to the IIOT, the IoT has grown to span all industry sectors, serving consumers and commercial industries such as financial services and insurance as well.

So why am I focused so much on this terminology? After all, as Shakespeare said, “O! be some other name: What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The primary reason I wanted to introduce our view of these terms is to address some soft spots in the IIC mission. The key word here is “industrial”. Attempting to link areas such as financial trading to “industrial” concerns is indirect at best, and asset monitoring is a universal concern not only associated with industrial systems. I know the case can be made that there a little “industrial” technology in every business sector, but let’s stay focused. The IIC’s primary mission is for industrial companies. OT is heavily influenced by “cyberphysical” needs, physical assets in industrial environments– the turbines in power plants, the assembly lines for automobile companies, even the stop lights in transportation systems. Personal consumer electronics and systems supporting traditional IT don’t need new cheerleaders. Of course, there will be “cross-over” areas such as ATMs and point-of-sale systems in commercial environments, connected home technologies, and solutions in health care– these are sectors that I referred to above with some industrial infrastructure. I suppose they could be considered to some degree as “industrial”. But my concern is for any consortium, no matter how big or how prestigious, trying to bite off literally more than it can chew. The only ‘real’ industrial partner in the consortium at this point is GE (and arguably perhaps AT&T). The rest are decidedly IT-centric, so the desire to make the IIoT more “inclusive” is understandable. But there is plenty of opportunity on the industrial side without trying to make more of it than necessary. The IIC is not a standards-setting consortium, but can no doubt influence standards in OT by being first to support and first to adopt. While a reference architecture is described, not timeline has been given for it. The executive director of the IIC (also CEO of the Open Management Group, or OMG) envisions the industrial internet as encompassing everything that needs a more robust Internet, not only those elements that can realize OT v2 for industries. I find that to be a bit of a stretch. The industrial piece of the IIC’s mission will keep them busy enough for a long time to come. It’s ok to help out less industrial sectors, but our advice would be to try to stay focused.

There are several things that are good about this announcement. One, it continues to highlight the fact that OT needs are rising to the level of visibility within IT-dominated enterprises. Having IT firms and an OT firm of such caliber together underscores the importance of the architecture and technology of the IoT to the future evolution of OT, though more OT-driven firms need to join to ensure the vision and direction doesn’t become too— well, IT-centric. In the area of OT security, many needs are NOT the same as IT. The IoT will also pose new and different security challenges to that of IT– ask the OT architects and engineers that are already familiar with many of those challenges. The Industrial Internet Consortium is positioned to make a positive contribution to leveraging the technologies of OT and the IoT, but actions will speak louder than words. Time will tell if this moves beyond a marketing and awareness campaign to something more substantive.

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