Industrial World Slow to Accept Cloud Computing

While the IT and corporate communities embrace virtualized servers, plant managers and automation engineers watch for pitfalls.

Cloud computing has been around for a number of years, but these days, its all the rage. But does have a fit in the industrial world?

The concept of cloud computing is simple: have applications and servers hosted on the Internet, usually in a virtualized infrastructure where one physical hardware server hosts two or more distinct operating systems and associated applications.

Cloud computing suppliers offer the ability for companies to ramp up or down the computing power they require, which makes it a very attractive alternative to using in-house resources. Peaks in demand, perhaps due to year-end results or special promotions, can be catered to easily and relatively cost-effectively.

Within the industrial world, the use of virtualized servers within the plant is becoming more attractive for end-users and vendors alike, although still in its infancy. Control rooms, particularly those located in older plants or on off-shore facilities, have limited space. Having a few physical servers being used to run multiple applications such as HMIs, historians and engineering workstations has many advantages in addition to the space saving.

Each different application/operating system deployment is called a virtual image. New virtual images can be tested offline and, when ready to be deployed, easily and quickly loaded onto the production server. Old images can also be reloaded very quickly if issues with the existing image are discovered.

The IT and corporate world is embracing cloud computing due the cost savings and reduction in datacenter servers, space and associated costs. The implication is that as cloud computing becomes more mainstream, executives eyes will be on the automation networks and how these can be virtualized and then sent to the cloud, thereby reducing costs. The use and benefits of these services will need to be weighed up against the costs and risks.

Plant managers and automation engineers may well have doubts on the use of virtualization or cloud computing within the industrial space as it may be seen as increasing IT complexity while reducing security and availability. Moving the actual DCS or HMIs to the cloud is not likely to happen in the immediate future, but ancillary processes and systems may well be a prime candidate for moving such as historians, training systems and engineering workstations.

Looking at historians, local historians will be needed but often these are consolidated to a larger historian, particularly in multi-national companies. Having these located in a cloud infrastructure would make perfect sense as each individual plant would be able to upload the data to the cloud and reduce the resilience on the corporate network.

Having the data stored in the cloud instead of locally does not necessarily make it less secure. Take the example of storing your money at home as opposed to depositing it in a bank, which will devote time, money and resources in making itself secure. The majority of people would assume that a bank is more secure even though thieves know exactly where it is. Data can similarly be secured in a cloud environment, but you need to ensure that the right resources are dedicated to the task of security.

Virtualization and cloud computing will be a reality in more and more plants over the coming years. This will entail the merging of automation IT and corporate IT resources as the skills needed are firmly embedded in the corporate IT world at present. As the cost savings are demonstrated in the IT world, the pressure to implement this technology in the industrial world will become greater. While 2011 may be well be the year cloud computing takes off in the IT world, but the industrial world has time to adapt and understand the pitfalls.

Graham Speake is a principal systems architect at industrial automation supplier Yokogawa Electric where he provides security advice to internal developers and customers. His specialties include industrial automation and process control security, penetration testing, network security, and network design.

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