Data Forecast: Partly Cloudy

Let Somebody Else Handle the Data Flow? It's Tempting, but Are the Controls and Safeguards Convincing Enough to Tie the Plant to Cloud-Based Services?

By Dan Hebert

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The cloud has arrived for commercial and personal applications, and the benefits in those business spaces are real. Cloud use is already widespread in many corporate functional areas and is becoming ever more present. A recent report from the Economist Intelligence Unit and IBM indicates that 90% of corporate America expects to adopt the cloud in its organizations during the next three years. The uses include data storage, transfer of large data files like software downloads to customers, and web mail services such as Gmail.

Taking cloud use to another level, many companies outsourced entire functions such as customer relationship management, letting others provide this type of software as a service, typically accessed through a web browser.

Employees at industrial firms certainly are becoming familiar with the cloud through personal use. Companies involved in commercial enterprise, particularly those selling business-to-consumer, are using the cloud, and we'll see that there are good reasons why.

Though the cloud is doing well in commercial and personal applications, industrial manufacturing users are few and far between. The challenges are significant for real-time, critical operations such as manufacturing.

In Cloud We Don't Yet Trust

Popular uses for the most part are not directly related to manufacturing. Leave it to an end user to get right to the heart of the matter: concerns about how cloud reliability and security could threaten manufacturing stability.

"Although cloud-based data storage might be beneficial for process automation systems, no one in a petroleum processing plant trusts its integrity due to its immaturity," says Rick Hakimioun, senior instrument/electrical and control systems engineer at Paramount Petroleum. "It took a while for us to trust the integrity of data from fieldbus instrumentation, and it will take a while for the cloud to catch on. I'm not against taking advantage of cloud-based data sharing for monitoring process control systems. But due to lack of a published standard practice developed by engineering society experts, I'm not sure about its utilization at this time. I say, in cloud we don't trust, at least for now."

Richard McCormick, automation engineer with system integrator Mick Automation in Levis, Quebec, has similar concerns. "My main concern would of course be linked to the security aspect of using the cloud," he says. "There is absolutely no Internet connection allowed from the process control network DMZ at all of the places we work, so the standard cloud couldn't be used."

More Than Hype

As with many new software and information system technologies, the hype surrounding the cloud is omnipresent and often overwhelming. But benefits are real. Virtually any service provided by the cloud also can be provided by in-house IT, so benefits of the cloud generally must be expressed by comparing them to the in-house IT alternative.

For example, data storage and backup often are provided in-house, but cloud providers often can do it cheaper and more reliably. Economies of scale let cloud providers store data for extremely low prices, most of these providers have elaborate data backup plans in place, and support is 24/7.

For many firms, the costs to buy software and pay renewal fees to maintain it are a significant expense. Paying a cloud provider for software-as-a-service (SaaS) is much cheaper, particularly when the full costs of IT personnel and infrastructure are factored in.

Deployment can also be quicker. SaaS applications can be put into use within hours, as opposed to weeks or even months for an in-house product that performs a similar function.

For remote data access, the cloud can provide many more paths than an in-house solution. If a plant stores its data in an on-premises server, all users must connect to this server for data access. If the data can be moved onto the cloud, multiple access paths are enabled, increasing reliability and access speed as remote user connections now can become local.

For vendors with a worldwide presence, the cloud can be the best way to distribute software. "Our company uses cloud-based products internally to provide services to our customers, such as downloads of our software products," says Marcia Gadbois, president of InduSoft, a company that provides SCADA and HMI software to industrial firms. "Using a cloud provider allows our users to download from local servers wherever they are in the world, increasing download speeds through a reliable high-speed data connection. We use Amazon and Rackspace to provide this service, and we've found both providers to be very reliable, providing the performance and uptime our customers need at very low cost to us."

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