As the number of devices coming onto the IIoT scene continues to expand at a rate akin to a Cambrian explosion of growth -- thanks to input from early adopters and test beds -- IIoT standards are just now developing to guide those seeking industrial IoT.
"Very few standards originally designed for IoT exist so far," said Richard Soley, who is both executive director of the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) and CEO of the Object Management Group (OMG). "Low-level middleware is available -- including our data distribution service -- but it's just the beginning. The difficult part isn't the protocols; it's the semantics. Every vertical market within IoT has different semantics that must be supported."
By working with industrial test bed ecosystems, the IIC is developing and testing out scenarios to determine how IIoT standards can make building specific test beds easier. "One of these test beds -- Track and Trace, led by Bosch in Germany -- has put out a set of semantics requirements," Soley said. "Based on this, OMG has begun developing standards for logistics inside and outside of factories."
IIoT hills to climb
What are the biggest challenges in developing IIoT standards? "Ensuring seamless interoperability across the vast range and diversity of current and new IoT applications is no easy feat," said Peter Niblett, an IoT platform architect at IBM and a member of the OneM2M marketing and communications subcommittee, which develops standards for machine-to-machine communications and IoT.
The challenge of integrating legacy applications already in place -- such as SCADA systems and closed proprietary systems that weren't designed to communicate across production lines and functional areas -- with new-to-market devices and technologies "is presenting a number of hurdles on the road to enabling a harmonious IIoT ecosystem," Niblett added.
Several protocols for data transfer do exist and "are suited for different kinds of communication networks found in IIoT applications," Niblett said. Examples of IoT protocols for field-area networks include the Constrained Application Protocol, MQ Telemetry Transport (MQTT) and more industry-specific ones, such as Modbus. Wide area networks tend to rely on MQTT and HTTP, and data transfer to back-end applications uses HTTP or messaging protocols like Apache Kafka.
The OneM2M global industrial IoT standard is designed to hide technology complexities for IoT application developers through an abstraction layer. "It enables a horizontal linking of data through a universal standards-based approach," Niblett said. "This allows different systems and devices within an industrial setting to integrate, while enhancing industrial operations within this area and improving the IIoT ecosystem as a whole."
How exactly can connected applications benefit from IoT and IIoT standards? "By adopting an interoperable horizontal approach, fragmentation within the IoT ecosystem can be prevented," Niblett explained. "This provides great benefits for suppliers because they won't get locked in to solutions. It also allows them to easily integrate with other suppliers within the ecosystem, which means consumers' demands are met through a wider choice of providers."
Federating standardized IoT platforms and operating systems across multiple production lines and subsystems "improves ease of application and data sharing, which will be key if the industry is to truly enhance the industrial chain," Niblett pointed out. "OneM2M's platform provides a security architecture to ensure the trustworthy, safe and secure handling of the data collected or processed by these IIoT devices -- which is particularly important within industrial environments, where security glitches could present safety concerns that have never been contemplated before, with a breach potentially resulting in a life-threatening situation."
A more difficult question, according to Soley, is: What industrial IoT standards will make application development more useful? "Everywhere I go, people ask what standards exist, and I reply that semantics standards are what's really necessary," he said. "Then they ask about protocols. We've been publishing protocols since 1990 and, while they're painful, it's a solved problem. The real issue is that you need guidance in choosing the right protocol and then getting the semantics on top of it -- essentially the metadata that sits above the numbers that pass around the network."
In the near future, don't expect to see many broad-based IIoT standards emerge. Rather, watch for "semantic technology requirements and standards within specific markets," Soley said. "Lots of those requirements will be coming out of test beds soon -- for energy grids, healthcare, agriculture, energy production, etc. OMG is working on some of these standards, but other standards organizations are too."