In a freewheeling interview at the ARC Industry Forum, ARC’s Craig Resnick, Vice President, Consulting, and John Vicente, Chief Technology Officer at Stratus Technologies, spoke about the value of edge computing and system orchestration in digital transformation. Their conversation veered towards how disruptive technologies are being deployed on the plant floor to enhance productivity and manage remote operations during the pandemic. This blog highlights the key points of their conversation. You can watch the interview here or/and below.
Disruptive Technologies and Stratus’ Response
Mr. Resnick’s opening query was about disruptive technologies that have the greatest effect on Stratus’ customers and the company’s response. Mr. Vicente said that there are a number of technologies that are starting to find their way onto the plant floor. However, when folks talk about disruptive technologies they are usually referring to cloud computing, artificial intelligence, 5G, or blockchain. Although those are very disruptive and will have an impact, but what he finds more interesting, but not hitting the headlines as yet, is system orchestration - IT/OT orchestration.
“System orchestration is about automation of lifecycle management services, whether it's applications, computing infrastructure, networking infrastructure, security analytics, or managing data. Fundamentally, it can bring tremendous value to the factory or plant, and that's really where convergence is happening, both in terms of IT and OT usages.”
Currently, Mr. Vicente is involved in the Open Process Automation Forum and co-chairs the system orchestration committee with John Casey, CTO, CPLANE.ai. From the committee’s standpoint, system orchestration is very popular in terms of participation by both IT and OT constituents, and there’s recognition of the value that orchestration can bring to the process industry. ARC believes that it is of equal value to the discrete and hybrid industries as well.
Significance and Challenges of IT/OT Convergence
Mr. Vicente responded that there are many challenges in the convergence space. What is very relevant to Stratus is high availability (HA) as it is foundational in the IT world. In data centers and the cloud, HA has always been very relevant, but now it has emerged as even more critical in the operational environment to avoid manufacturing downtime combined with the need for remote operations. Traditional HMI/SCADA and PLC, PAC, and DCS suppliers are now challenged to migrate towards this converged architecture. Further, he said that the traditional legacy solutions required high availability, and this was facilitated through physical redundancy or hard coding application redundancy. But the environments are becoming more complex, virtualized, containerized, and solving high availability or even fault tolerance becomes more complex at the node level, device level, or distributed level.
Stratus is renowned for its high availability and fault tolerant technologies, and the company has transformed its solutions from the data center and brought solutions to the edge, where it is delivering the same superiority. The edge solutions are gaining wider traction with not only suppliers, but also machine builders and even industrial end users. He believes that this is a critical factor for convergence in the edge computing space.
Edge Computing and Other Disruptive Technologies
5G, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, blockchain, etc. are some of the other technologies that are involved with edge computing. “So where do you see edge computing vis-à-vis all those other technologies?” asked Mr. Resnick.
Mr. Vicente responded that these technologies are not separate from the edge as they are foundational to scaling edge computing. The common, inherent characteristic of these technologies is that they are based on decentralized architectures, which is what edge computing is based on. There is an explosion of sensors, devices and compute at the edge, and that is bringing in new types of artificial intelligence usages at the edge for real-time analytics that enable decision making. “Edge computing will reach the scale of cloud computing, if not out-distancing it in terms of overall computing scale.” He added that these technologies are not independent of edge computing, they're actually enablers of edge computing.
Future of Edge Computing
“The pandemic accelerated edge computing, we saw an increase in remote operations etc. so where do you think we are heading?” asked Mr. Resnick.
Mr. Vicente said that some initiatives have taken a pause due to COVID, so there is some pent up demand. This could be due to lack of physical presence on site. But in the broader industry, he sees a lot more cloud to edge and edge to cloud usages and solutions over the next year. Many customers and suppliers are starting to bring more of these cloud to edge and edge to cloud capabilities, and it's going to play a greater role in the transformation at the edge. More artificial intelligence and cybersecurity capabilities are playing major roles in this IT/OT convergence. He added that we are at the nascent stage of edge computing, but it will soon ramp up.
Wrapping up the discussion, they spoke about IT/OT convergence and automated edge platforms that can be operated and deployed by people with an OT background. There will be no need to have an IT or programming background. In future there will be an IT/OT fusion, and that stage will come when the lines begin to blur, and there will be no distinction between the two.