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Companies across numerous verticals have big plans to use the industrial internet of things, or IIoT, to help reduce costs, run operations more efficiently and steer into new areas of service, including predictive maintenance. But as they start to advance pilot projects toward full deployment, many are running into a universal challenge: securely connecting industrial assets at scale.
IoTium, a venture-backed startup run by former networking execs, has put that obstacle directly in its target. CEO and Founder Ron Victor spent years in the aluminum industry, working with companies to create a connected smelter ecosystem so they could gather and use data to ultimately reduce power consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. That early exercise in industrial connectivity made Victor all too aware of the complexity and security issues related to onboarding legacy industrial assets, sparking the concept for IoTium's technology stack and methodology.
IoTium, which bills itself as the first secure network infrastructure for IIoT, has a patented network-as-a-service offering to securely onboard legacy on-site equipment, such as building systems, far-flung oil rigs, heavy machinery, industrial automation assets, transportation gear and elevators, to IIoT as means to streamline operations and maximize return on investment. The idea behind the IoTium technology is to help companies quickly, easily and securely handle the connectivity aspects of IIoT at scale, allowing them to focus their resources and efforts on analytics, machine learning and predictive applications, explained Srivatsan Rajagopal, the company's CTO.
"If you look at IIoT, it's a race from the data perspective -- companies are looking to solve all kinds of interesting problems with machine learning, analytics and advanced sensors," he explained. "But the critical, often overlooked, piece is connectivity. Without that, the value proposition of IIoT is lost."
Book-ended IoT architecture
The IoTium platform tackles IIoT connectivity obstacles through three main functions: It secures an asset while allowing data to be easily collected, it guarantees a secure transport from the data source to the data sink, and it isolates data completely to make the connectivity infrastructure extensible and easy to provision at scale.
Srivatsan RajagopalCTO, IoTium
IoTium technology employs a book-ended architecture achieved through separate inode components, running at both the data source and data sink, regardless of whether that's on premises or at the edge. This configuration establishes a secure end-to-end tunnel between legacy assets and applications running in the cloud using state-of-the-art software-defined networking technologies. In addition, a built-in firewall ensures legacy assets are never visible from the internet, reducing the possibility of backdoor threats, and inodes use container technology to ensure further data isolation.
Another upside to the IoTium architecture is zero-touch provisioning, a requirement, Victor maintained, when you are attempting to roll out IIoT deployments at scale. With this approach, IT departments don't have to get into the weeds with firewall or port policies and settings, which eases deployment and lowers total cost of operations. "We're trying to make connecting legacy assets as simple as connecting a modem," Victor explained. "If you have to send out a Cisco-certified engineer at the cost of $200 an hour for every industrial router to set up a VPN and establish usernames and passwords, the cost would be horrendous."
The third pain point IoTium aims to solve is future-proofing, especially critical for legacy assets like oil rigs and industrial equipment that are likely to remain in place for decades. Once connected to IIoT, these assets need to be continuously updated and maintained, a task that can quickly become unmanageable at scale. With IoTium's edge application infrastructure, microservices-based distributed applications can easily be deployed and managed across thousands of virtualized edge platforms in a single click from the cloud, Rajagopal explained.
"The challenge is how to extend the lifecycle," he said. "With the scale and rate at which the software is moving, how do you continue to evolve the apps without impacting the device? Our software-defined format helps reconcile the rate of change."
As companies attempt to make the leap to commercial deployment, Victor believes the need for an IIoT connectivity platform will become clear, especially when considering timing. "It's one thing to build something that runs in a lab, but it's an entirely different ballgame when you are trying to connect at scale," he said. "People are coming to us saying, 'If we try to do this ourselves, it's going to take forever.'"