IT-OT Convergence Has Always Been The Path Forward – Automation World

As Industry 4.0 and IIoT (Industrial Internet of
Things) concepts become real applications,
an exciting conversation has developed centered
on the integration of information technology
(IT) with operations technology (OT). Large IT companies
have actively promoted ideas like workload
consolidation for businesses to optimize processes and
be more competitive. Some of the largest players in
automation technology (AT) are jumping on board.
Greater system openness, real-time deterministic
control with many-core processors, the incorporation
of web technologies and machine learning, among
other advances, are all possible through applying
popular technologies to industrial applications.

IT and OT convergence offers incredible benefits
to machine control architectures today—just as it has
for more than 30 years. While many suppliers are
just beginning to integrate PC-based technology into
industrial automation, it is nothing new. The history of
IT-OT convergence in automation technology dates
back to the early 1980s with the advent of the modern
PC and those who saw its potential for industrial
use. The adaptation of these ideas follows the diffusion
of innovations theory, which describes how new
technologies are adopted in order by the innovators
(2.5%), early adopters (13.5%), early majority (34%),
late majority (34%) and, finally, the laggards (16%).

PC-focused innovation
in the 1980s

During this era, the larger technology world began
to develop the personal computer (PC) and related
technologies for widespread business and consumer
use far beyond 1970s levels. This led to transformations
in standard chip sets, board designs, and sophisticated
operating systems. At that time, most industrial
technology companies stayed away from the PC
path. The PLC platforms of the time used proprietary
chip sets, board designs and, in most cases, programming
software. Traditional PLC technology for
machine control evolved much slower than it should
have due to an industry-wide aversion to change. As
a result, the paths of hardware PLCs and consumer
PCs would not begin to converge for decades.

While the majority of industrial vendors and
manufacturers initially shunned IT technology on the
plant floor, smaller start-up companies recognized
that both technologies could coexist. Using proven
industrial standards and computer science innovations,
smaller AT companies began the convergence
of IT and OT in manufacturing.

Early adopters
of the 1990s

In the 1990s, both technologies continued to
advance, with IT pioneers running laps around traditional
OT. The popularity of Windows exploded, and
it became ubiquitous in nearly every area of technology.
By launching Visual Studio in 1997, Microsoft
combined a number of programming languages in
a single environment, which continues to evolve to
this day. Industrial vendors that began implementing
PC-based automation technologies in the previous
decade saw significant gains in hardware and software
performance that far outpaced traditional PLCs. The
successful companies created new tools for deterministic,
real-time control that could run on industrial
PCs with standardized operating systems.

More automation vendors saw this opportunity
and launched computer-based controls. However,
these early adopters realized that developing their
own software from scratch was quite costly. They
started using off-the-shelf real-time operating
systems, but often didn’t widely promote the
solutions. Some notable crash-and-burns gave
PC-based platforms a bad reputation during this
time. However, many platforms were providing
incredible results in the field, extending their lead
in performance over traditional PLCs.

Early majority from
2000 onward

The turn of the millennium brought further developments
in software and multi-core processors. Major
IT players like Intel, IBM, and Microsoft actively
expanded into OT. Likewise, a determined subset
of the automation space kept integrating IT with
increased real-time capabilities.

Along with these automation and control
advances, another major development involved networking.
Industrial Ethernet protocols, such as Ether-CAT, created significant performance improvements
and a path forward from legacy fieldbuses. This is
another example of IT and OT convergence, with
Ethernet merging with fieldbus technology. Ether-
CAT eliminated the complexity and cost of switches
and additional hardware while providing deterministic
control with up to 65,535 devices per network. This
resulted from the same PC-based control innovators
who carefully considered the potential of industrial
Ethernet—combining its openness and acceptance
with the functionality of a fieldbus.

Today’s late majority

From automation software apps on smartphones
to many-core Intel Xeon processors in controllers,
IT-OT convergence continues to accelerate
today. For example, contemporary HMIs now
commonly rely on web technologies, and standards
such as MQTT and JSON are being implemented
in IIoT contexts.

Gigabit Ethernet technologies such as Ether-CAT G are also becoming key as machines become
more complex. The industry is also beginning to
apply machine learning and other artificial intelligence

Fortunately, the reluctance of manufacturers
to implement PC-based technologies continues to
evaporate as they see the benefits of IT technologies
in industry. The decades of IT-OT advances have
shown that any IT principle carried over to OT products
must be deterministic, reliable, available for many
years and implemented efficiently. Done correctly,
IT-OT integration produces results far better than
what traditional platforms can accomplish.

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