HomeData AnalyticsThe IIoT interview: “It’s a huge breakthrough for factories,” says Cisco

The IIoT interview: “It’s a huge breakthrough for factories,” says Cisco

Cisco appears to have found its rhythm in the enterprise IoT space by integrating communications technologies and data streams in its Kinetic platform for smart factories and smart cities. Enterprise IoT Insights caught up with Bryan Tantzen, in charge of its manufacturing IoT business, to discuss how the US networking giant is addressing an unholy trinity of challenges for the wider IoT market.

“The internet of things is hard in manufacturing,” says Bryan Tantzen, senior director at Cisco Systems. His company has been in the enterprise IoT game for more than a decade already, he observes; it is better qualified than most to chart the emerging digital landscape in the industrial sector.

“We know the space; we know what it needs. There’s lots of nitty-gritty detail, which we are very focused on, compared with some of our IT competitors. We are automating the network, and bringing the kind of thing we’ve been doing in IT for a long time into the factory space.”

Tantzen is in charge of the US group’s internet-of-things (IoT) activities in the manufacturing sector. Its profile in the space is rather different, he suggests; it is less interested in the application layer, and more in the platform layer, where endpoints are connected and data is extracted.

Cisco’s Kinetic system represents ‘Exhibit A, a ‘platform of platforms’ for sundry vertical markets, which allows any variety of data inputs, normalises their flow, and renders their information in a common management plane. Cisco supports the top industrial protocols – Ethernet IP, Profinet, CC Link – across any transport network, whether wireless or cellular, it notes.

“It is different from other platforms because it really moves and normalises the data – and it’s open, so it can feed into anybody else. Others are really more focused on getting the data into their own stack. We don’t really care what the protocol is; we’ll normalise it across anything,” says Tantzen.

“Kinetic is very important for manufacturing in order to manage IoT gateways and devices, and the flow of data from the devices to the application in the plant or the cloud. And we are providing secure, manageable data flow in both places.”

Port of Rotterdam – Cisco is working with IBM to provide Europe’s busiest port with IoT solutions (Photo: Freek van Arkel)

The company has just announced tighter integration of the Kinetic platform with IBM’s Watson IoT system to improve data processing and intelligence at the network edge. The partnership is being brought to bear on autonomous shipping and logistics in the Port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port by cargo tonnage.

A version of Kinetic works in cities too, for government administrations to channel the riot of new data streams in their urban environments. Cisco is providing the central platform for the CityVerve project, in Manchester, in the UK.

CityVerve taps into both new and existing data-sets; public and private partners can plug their infrastructure into the Cisco platform. Its wizardry is to map every network asset in the city in a common geo-spatial language in order to create the illusion they are part of a unified smart city network.

Cisco appears to be making new digital connectivity count in enterprise scenarios. Others are having less luck, notes Tantzen. Three quarters of enterprise IoT projects are failing, according to a Cisco poll of 1,845 business decision-makers, employed variously in the manufacturing, government and energy sectors.

Just 26 per cent of companies regard their IoT initiatives as successes; worse, a third reckon their projects were outright failures. Tantzen knows why; he points at the unholy trinity of complexity, interoperability and security. “Those are the reasons for it,” he says.

Complexity

At Hannover Messe last month, Cisco sought to impress it was delivering on all factory-tech cornerstones of the Industry 4.0 movement, and simplifying deployment and management of industrial IoT solutions by squarely addressing each of these impediments.

Cisco has joined the so-called ‘Shapers’ consortium – comprising the likes of ABB, Belden, Bosch Rexroth, B&R, Rockwell Automation and Schneider Electric, among 15 companies in total (Siemens is its most notable absentee from the European automation space) – to create a new industrial communication solution based on the OPC-UA protocol for real-time and sensor-to-cloud applications.

OPC-UA has developed as a key technology for securely connecting information and operational technology (IT and OT) systems in industrial settings, allowing for easy and secure sharing of information across different vendor technologies and the time-sensitive networking (TSN) suite of standards.

TSN brings deterministic switching to the factory, observes Tantzen, and enables simpler automated networking. It provides a salve for the first of the market’s skin-deep conditions: complexity. With the Shapers group, Cisco is essentially reinventing the Ethernet network for the industrial space.

“Ethernet is an open standard; all kinds of advanced security tools can be applied to it. But it’s not deterministic; it’s best effort. Generally, it works well for these factory automation systems, but there are a few cases where you need to know 100 per cent when the packet’s going to arrive – where you need sub one-millisecond latency, and no jitter,” explains Tantzen.

“With TSN, we’re bringing scheduling into Ethernet so we can have 100 per cent reliability on when that packet is arriving. For things like mission critical safety systems or very advanced motion applications, it gives additional comfort that the Ethernet network will work in the entire factory.”

This allows Ethernet to be extended deeper into the PLC – all the way down to the sensors and robots and machines. In turn, it enables simplification of the protocol stack in factories. These are just first steps, by the leaders in the automation space, but they are giants ones for the Industry 4.0 movement, says Tantzen.

“We can get rid of all these proprietary standards that existed in manufacturing to provide deterministic capabilities. It is very exciting; it’s a big revolution.”

Interoperability

Meanwhile, in another strike for technological simplicity, set against the gnarly issues of complexity and interoperability, Cisco has expanded and tightened integration of IoT devices with its Kinetic platform. Its Digital Network Architecture (DNA) Center, which IoT operators use as a kind of front desk to permit and deny network access, can now open the door to an additional 620 IoT device ‘profiles’.

The idea is to reduce the ‘time-to-value’ for customers, with the need for fewer custom-developed connectors, says Tantzen. One enterprise spent a year just to connect a pair of machines, he explains; the complexity is too great, and the hassle too much. “Many customers are in the same boat,” he says.

To simplify further, Cisco has created a number of enterprise IoT starter-packs, pre-packaged solutions combining its Kinetic platform comes with pre-built ‘connectors’ to get the data off the shop floor, and dashboards to visualise it. “It provides a starting point, and a way to get value within days, and to scale from there,” he says.

Enterprises can hook up their machinery in less than two weeks with these starter-packs – “and frequently less than a day,” says Tantzen – compared with months just to design the system architecture in the old days. “Instead of this paralysis by analysis, we can deploy and get value straight away, and think about the strategy to scale later – because it’s a platform, which extends to all types of use cases.”

manufacturers NEC smart manufacturing
Connected industry – manufacturers can be up and running with their IoT solutions in days, and sometimes hours

Cisco has created one industrial IoT starter-kit for monitoring energy usage, another for monitoring the health of industrial equipment, and a brand new bundle, Connected Machines, for providing rapid connectivity and clear returns in the command-and-control (C&C) server space.

The IBM Watson integration – to create the world’s smartest port in Rotterdam, and also replicate the trick for every customer in its own sector – is another example of its simplified IoT set-up and operation, and its developing application of machine learning in the industrial space.

The company is expanding its partner ecosystem both ‘northbound’ and ‘southbound’, it says, comprising device makers and application developers working with data either side of its Kinetic platform, and also pre-integrating starter solutions to accelerate the return on investment for customers.

“It is a new win, and a new joint customer for Cisco and IBM, and what’s happening is very new,” says Tanzen of the Port of Rotterdam deal. He references the water and weather conditions, and the traffic flow in and out of the port, as measures that can be used to optimise the loading of ships in the quayside.

“A one-inch increase in load weight equates to $1.5 million per vessel. It’s things like that, which they could never do before,” he says. The next phase will be to enable fully autonomous tug vessels in the harbour.

Security

The final hurdle in this over-view of the rocky foot-lands of the new digital landscape is security. “These factories have been using proprietary networks, with zero security inside the plants themselves. They’ve been air-gapped – a hard shell with a firewall, perhaps, and this soft middle, with open networks and control systems. As we connect these factories, that has to change,” explains Tantzen.

Conformity is everything in the fight against cyber-crime, and the IoT space is conflicted. The tech industry, at large, is failing to learn from its mistakes; a glance at the top IoT security vulnerabilities shows this to be the case. The same errors and oversights from IT security keep appearing, invariably linked with identity authentication, transport encryption and physical security. Devices are the weakest link.

Cisco’s latest cyber-security report claims manufacturers are a prime target for malicious hacks; 31 per cent have already experienced attacks on their OT infrastructure, and 69 per cent are bracing to come under fire on their factory floors 2018.

“If customers have an attack like the Wannacry virus, because they have unprotected factory networks, it can spread through the entire factory, and even into other factories, and take out any Windows-based device, for example. That’s a huge concern,” says Tantzen.

Government both sides of the Atlantic are attempting to create some order from the chaos, to make the fight against this new branch of cyber-crime more focused. In the meantime, it comes down to the technology. OPC-UA, backed by most of the leading brands in industrial automation, including Cisco, builds in higher-grade security for bridging the IT-OT divide.

Cisco is making security a simpler process by reducing the number of vendors in the chain, and by automating security settings in new enterprise IoT deployments, so commissioning and replacement of equipment is simplified and expedited. “Our security solutions provide the visibility and control manufacturers need to reduce risk, protect intellectual property and ensure the integrity of their production,” says Tantzen.

Its Industrial Network Director (IND), launched last year to give visibility of network and automation devices, now allows for plug-and-play deployment of new network hardware – ensuring system settings for performance and security are carried over to new installations. “If it brakes at three in morning, you can replace it quickly and easily, and minimise factory downtime,” says Tantzen.

One barrier to deployment is secure network switching, notes Tantzen. “Most manufacturers don’t know how to configure their switching.” Cisco has just integrated its secure switching with its Identity Services Engine (ISE) security application, used by its DNA Center as a policy enforcer, and its IND plug-and-play engine for network deployments in the OT environment.

“It’s hard to believe, but right now customers can’t see what access they have on the factory floor, which means they can’t monitor security threats, nor contain them with zone isolation. By integrating these solutions, we have solved these problems – manufacturers can see their OT assets, monitor them for threats, and put in place dynamic access control,” explains Tantzen.

In the end, if security fails, everything fails, and the good work is undone and the promise is undermined. It is a suitable note to close on. Tantzen goes on: “It’s a huge breakthrough for factories – to get rid of that soft middle, and have a security layer throughout the factory, and not just at the perimeter. We are finding this dramatically improves the security. It would have eliminated or contained a lot of the viruses that have down factories in recent times.”

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