The Right Tool for the Job
by Mike Fahrion
Today’s suitcases come with extendable handles and quad, swivel, ball-bearing castors. They practically transport themselves. I’d completely forgotten how awkward their predecessors could be until I spotted one in the Las Vegas airport recently. Its owner was trying to navigate the security maze with the thing, and it was fighting him every step of the way. Each time he inched forward he had to drag the suitcase along as well. If he didn’t do it with perfect precision, the suitcase would promptly topple over on its side. It simply wasn’t the right tool for modern air travel. It looked like it belonged on the roof rack of a 1963 Rambler station wagon, back when blackjack dealers used a single deck and slot machines spat out real silver dollars.
I wasn’t in Vegas to catalog antique luggage, of course. I was there to give a tech talk about architectures for industrial IoT. I wasn’t flying home until the next day, so I had plenty of time to talk with smart people from every area of industrial networking. (This being Vegas, I could also have gone double-or-nothing on my kids’ college fund while I was at it, but I resisted the temptation. Maybe next time.)
During my conversations in Las Vegas that old suitcase kept popping into my mind. It was a perfectly serviceable tool back when people did most of their traveling on trains and in autos. It only became obsolete when we switched to air travel, and we were suddenly forced to drag luggage through lengthy airport concourses and struggle our way through airport security lines.
One of my conversations was with an automation systems integrator who was looking to integrate remote flow sensor data into a SCADA system at an expanding water treatment plant. His boss had come across a magazine article about our new Wzzard wireless sensing platform and he had tossed it on the systems integrator’s desk. (Bosses do this kind of thing to keep the troops off balance. “Does he want me to go out and buy this immediately, or am I supposed to use my own judgement?”)
So the systems integrator introduced himself to me to talk about Wzzard. But — for his application – I felt that the Wzzard IoT solution would be overkill. He was only trying to integrate data into a traditional SCADA system, using the tried and true Modbus protocol. Wireless is the way to go, but he doesn’t need Wzzard to do it. We’ve got a great solution for that application in our Zlinx product line – wireless Modbus I/O direct to your Modbus master. It’s the best value in its class for traditional SCADA wireless I/O applications, and if the suitcase doesn’t need spinner wheels and a retractable handle, why pay for them?
I would have made a different recommendation if he had needed to go beyond the “automation” layer. What if he needed to push data to a web based dashboard, an ERP system or an advanced analytics layer to reduce his maintenance costs and downtime? Those conversations start in different offices, and they involve IT, CIOs, and CFOs. These guys have a much grander vision, and they are looking beyond traditional SCADA and automation. That’s where Wzzard comes into play.
So what’s the difference? If you take a look at Wzzard, you’ll see that it’s designed for industrial IoT architecture rather than the system integrator’s traditional SCADA system. Wzzard uses MQTT, a scalable publish-subscribe protocol that publishes data to one application or to hundreds of applications with no impact on the power or payload of the Wzzard node itself. Wzzard provides enriched, semantically searchable data formats – not obscure registers and IDs, but real information that doesn’t require reverse engineering to be useful. If you’re writing an analytics app, which data format would you prefer: “Address 31, register 40047, value 1768” or “Flow rate, Pool 14, 162 CFS, 11:55 AM on 11/06/15”?
Wzzard may not be the perfect fit for traditional SCADA, but implementing industrial IoT with traditional SCADA tools would be a tough and expensive journey. For IoT you need new tools like Wzzard and new skill-sets, like “IoT-class” systems integrators who understand both IT and OT. They’re still a little rare, but they’re not that hard to spot. They’re the guys who can speak both languages. And while they still have an old style suitcase in the closet, because sometimes it’s still the right tool for the job, they’ve also got a four-wheeled spinner bag with racing stripes and a built-in device charger. In industrial networking, the tool that makes the most sense depends upon what you’re trying to do and where you’re trying to go.
April 5, 2017