I spent some time at the Entelec 2018 Spring Conference in Houston this past May. It’s one of the few industry conferences focusing on communications and control technologies used by petroleum, natural gas, pipeline and electric utility companies. And that’s why I attend.
Communications and digitization dominate Entelec
Two major interests dominated the conference: communications and digitization. Of course, ARC has been fascinated by digitization and its effects on industry for quite some time. Most of what we write talks about the enterprise, various benefits, and implications down the road. Most of what we write also assumes high-bandwidth communications to the devices. However, that isn’t the case for most Entelec conference attendees. Their assets are in far flung geographies where cellular providers haven’t bothered to secure the frequencies, because no one lives there. Except for power distribution companies, these sites may not have grid electricity available. In these cases, communications with the sites may be limited to daylight hours and relying on the battery for critical operational applications.
Process controllers vs. edge control
While we did hear some talk of edge devices here and there at the conference, ARC believes edge devices will play a critical role in the digitization of geographically dispersed assets because of the limitation of communications and power. These devices will accommodate both pre- and post-processing of analytics, data collection (such as store and forward), and logic. Indeed, we saw some vendors pushing replacing current control technology with more powerful edge computing devices, a debate that has been emerging across the industrial automation world.
Poor fit between IIoT and SCADA licensing models
I attended an executive board session on the changing data requirements. They noted that there are new requests for data from departments that were never interested in the past. This includes servicing the data requirements of government entities and external companies. One individual noted that, in the last three years, they had added 300k tags to their historian and the growth is not linear. The growth in data demand is making it difficult to predict network requirements, especially to the field. The panel also noted that SCADA licensing models make IIoT applications expensive. There was another noteworthy remark about the industry moving away from polling the field to change notification (what some might call publish/subscribe).
Emerging technology session
Entelec offers “Vendor Shootout” sessions where, as the name implies, vendor representatives offer their thoughts on a particular topic. I attended one on emerging technology hosted by Heather Becker, VP of Sales for End 2 End Technologies and Third VP on the Entelec Board. Because of the industry, there is a lot of focus on telecommunications. They noted that there appears to be more of RF spectrum available than in the past. On the topic of private LTE, they noted that the industry is challenged by available spectrum, and that cell providers are not buying spectrum in remote areas, allowing production companies to purchase the spectrum in these areas and install their own networks. Some IIoT vendors are pushing for network edge devices to replace RTUs and PLCs. There was also a discussion about the best method for data collection, polling versus publish/subscribe, with no clear answer given other than “it depends.” DNP3 is apparently falling out of favor and MQTT is winning the protocol war for now. Modbus is likely to remain around for a while. The topic of cloud adoption was also brought up with bandwidth being identified as the most challenging aspect. Cybersecurity was also discussed in the context of the radios currently used offering military-grade security. The overall conclusion was that the market is trending toward cloud adoption.
Attendance at the show has been declining for years, but this year seem to pick up despite some competing events. It’s refreshing to see the challenges presented in different markets and the methods each use to solve them. I believe other industries can learn a lot about their networking challenges from this market. It was also interesting (and expected) to hear that digitization and its challenges are reaching these industries as well.