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Netbiter Cloud Computing for industrial SCADA applications

The future is not in the clouds; it’s already here says Stuart Hannah of
HMS Industrial Networks, but few engineers and other potential users
understand what cloud computing can do for them.

 
Engineers can be a conservative lot, particularly when they are responsible for the organisation’s core systems and assets. They often fight shy of new technologies, waiting to see others use them first, and it is becoming clear that they are currently missing out on the advantages of cloud computing. As management pressure increases for engineers to deliver more for less, cloud computing may provide some of the answers. So just what is meant by cloud computing; how will it affect users, and what are the advantages over conventional alternatives?

 

The term cloud computing simply relates to the Internet. It comes from the way
it is depicted graphically, typically as a cloud diagram. More specifically it
relates to how services such as infrastructure, applications and business
processes can be delivered on demand via the Internet.

 

image of cloud diagram for SaaS

Fig 1. Typical cloud diagram

One example is the provision of software as a service (SaaS) to deliver
software applications via a standard web browser. This means that software
such as general office desktop applications and associated data are not
resident on your PC, but are hosted remotely and accessed over the Internet
using a web browser. It uses a different business model, where you don’t buy
the software and server hardware you lease it, paying only when you use it, or
by the volume of data stored.

 

The benefit is that you can remotely access all your site information from any
suitable browser with Internet access. Not just your word processor but your
accounting package, building management systems, or ERP, in fact almost
anything.

 

As these services are provided via the Internet they are scalable (both up and
down), reliable, are easily accessible, and they can complement or replace the
user’s own IT infrastructure. Importantly, new applications can be trialled,
deployed and shared quickly and easily. The benefits include reduced
investment, simplified maintenance and optimised plant operation. Decision
making and implementation can also be faster as there is no capital expenditure
needed.

 

External servers, virtual servers, storage and other on-demand services are
available to support and back-up existing functions and can often reduce the
need for new/additional infrastructure investment. Cloud computing offers other
opportunities such as providing an external service platform (also referred to as
‘platform as a service’) on which to build or run/host applications which may be
too complex to implement internally. They can also be used to provide new
external services to customers, with the benefit of not needing access to
internal IT infrastructure from either side.

 

One growing demand for the use of cloud computing is for remote monitoring of
plant and equipment. It is becoming increasingly important for engineers to
monitor and manage critical plant in order to improve up-times and reduce
maintenance costs, and this can be especially important when plants are
geographically widely spread. A simple solution may be to add a web server to
your plant in order to view the data via the Internet, although this can leave the
plant vulnerable to hackers. However, by using the SaaS model delivered over
the clouds, risks and vulnerabilities are removed.

 

The remote monitoring of plant does not apply only to fixed installations.
Potentially any vehicle or equipment with an electrical power source can be
monitored, have data exchanged, and even GPS tracking enabled.
Communication with remote monitoring devices is available through a range of
options. These include quad band GSM/GPRS mobile communications and
Ethernet TCP/IP connectivity via LAN/WAN. Typically, the monitoring devices
use serial communications such as RS-232 and RS-485 for connecting to local
plant: Modbus RTU and other popular open or proprietary network protocols
may also be available.

 

Delivering remote plant-wide visualisation

Image of Netbiter secure communication path and storage

 

Fig 2. Secure server for collection and storage of data from remote devices

 

Establishing a secure and reliable communication path over the Internet
requires solving a number of technical challenges such as, firewalls and public
IP addresses. Rather than using complex and expensive solutions to install and
manage this such as VPN, special M2M SIM cards etc. HMS’s new Netbiter
Argos 3 has been developed to provide a simpler firewall friendly solution. This
enables the user to focus on the plant issues without the needs for specialist IT
skills, or calling on others to address the extensive Internet, firewall, GPRS/APN
configurations.

 

Using cloud based architecture, the secure online data centre automatically
gathers and stores both site and equipment data from the remote
communication gateways at intervals specified by the user. Through the remote
server users can access their industrial installations, machines and devices
from anywhere in the world. The information the user is viewing is effectively a
mirror site in real-time on the secure server.

 

In addition to basic reporting, the Netbiter servers provide a browser based
graphical dashboard/user interface to view the plant data. This enables users to
quickly and easily create a graphical layout of their remote installation. The
dashboard includes functions for loading pictures into the layout, analogue and
digital graphical components (such as gauges, meters, indicators, etc.), which
makes it possible to detail a remote system with a visual layout that is easy to
understand. Where appropriate GPS data makes it possible to view the location
of each device in the field on an overview map (using Google maps) and the
system also lets you build multiple installations.

 

Image of Netbiter remote alarm dashboard

Fig 3. Remote Alarm dashboard with integrated GPS functionality

 

 

Access to the server information means users can log historical data and
produce graphical trends or diagnostics, manage alarms, or automatically
backup or restore remote configurations. Although not originally conceived as a
supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) package, the functionality
exists to easily configure one. The data can also be accessed by the users own
ERP system for further analysis and reporting.

 

Security of data and access

Moving data off-site raises concerns over both its security and availability. By
using special firewall friendly communications between the remote
communication gateways and the data centre makes it possible to keep existing
broadband security infrastructure at the customer’s site. This procedure is
accepted by almost all IT departments and gives confidence that the installation
is secure from a security perspective.

 

Data storage is rigorously protected as the remote server/data centre is
automatically backed up, so the risk of losing data, or downtime due to access
problems with the server are minimised. Data centres run on professional
enterprise-class architecture that is designed to support both small and largescale
deployments. They provide 24/7 monitoring of the server health,
redundant servers at different geographical locations, redundant storage, and
protection against fire, theft and similar eventualities.

 

To ensure the security of wireless communications over GPRS, dedicated SIM
cards can be selected. These mean that it is not possible to ping or try to
access the remote site except through the data centre and also avoids
unnecessary and costly GPRS traffic. If however the system does not need this
added security normal data enabled SIM cards can be used.

 

Access to the online system is centrally controlled and requires password
authentication. Multi-level password layers are used to provide permissions to
access different functions, and the server authenticates users and ensures their
correct access levels. Password activity is logged by the server, and all
communications are secured using Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption. This
is the same method banks use for secure online transactions.

 

Typical adopters have been machine monitoring and analysis, building
automation and monitoring, monitoring tank farms, pump and pumping stations
monitoring, and monitoring renewable energy sites. Mobile communications via
GSM and GPRS mean that monitoring even the smallest sites is viable.
The costs are subscription based and reflect the functions required. One
subscription is used together with each Netbiter gateway, and it is possible to
host up to three remote gateways in one account with the free subscription
option. Cloud based services may not be the answer to all manufacturing
issues, but its secure performance and potential to reduce investment costs is
likely to have a huge impact.

 

Most people are comfortable with online banking for checking their assets and
transferring money from one place to another, so maybe remote management
of our business assets is not such a big a leap into the unknown.