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The importance of an industrial OPC black box

04 May 2021

With greater machine-to-machine connectivity, the speed, stability and security of network communication of data becomes vital. David Evanson explains why a black box OPC gateway offers a simple solution to modern network requirements

For the past few years, the number of connected devices has outstripped the population of Earth several times over. In 2018, Statista reported that there was an estimated total of 22 billion Internet of Things (IoT) devices connected globally, almost three times the 7.5 billion people alive that same year.

Within the industrial space, the latest figures from Juniper Research put the total of Industrial IoT (IIoT) devices at 17.7 billion in 2020. This reinforces what Novotek has seen in the UK market, of more manufacturing and industrial businesses recognising the value of accessing and analysing data from the plant floor, where many of these IIoT systems are situated.

However, the IIoT is increasingly stretching out beyond the factory floor. In today’s digital world, control engineers, production managers, business leaders, interrelated and interdependent departments each need access to real-time data from industrial control equipment. The benefit from increased data access is well-documented. However, the challenge comes from connecting disparate, edge-based and legacy systems in a secure, reliable way.

Unify systems

Many industrial settings feature various installs of industrial communications software running on standard PCs, alongside other software applications that are all competing for processor resources. These PCs often have limited or no access from the wider world, where critical operations management applications would benefit from real-time industrial data. When we consider that any analytics reporting stands and falls based on the quality and reliability of the data acquisition beneath, it’s important that businesses can unify their systems.

Understandably, it’s no easy task for engineers to effectively and securely connect IT and OT systems, as well as ensuring communication between edge devices, legacy equipment and data sources using different computing languages. This is where a dedicated, standalone open platform communications (OPC) gateway device comes in. These devices sit securely between IT and OT networks and manage data traffic across a multitude of devices, making the otherwise daunting task simple, controllable and inherently secure.

These devices sit securely between IT and OT networks

Crucially, the OPC gateway device benefits most from being a black box device. There is a widely known phrase in IT technical support that, for many issues, the problem exists between the monitor and chair. This holds true for industrial environments too — the best performing industrial PC for many applications is one with no monitor, keyboard or mouse.

Defining the best hardware and OPC platform for a black box OPC gateway is vital, as the ideal approach should be to set up the device and leave it to perform its job. As such, the physical box should be rugged enough to operate effectively in the harshest of industrial environments. Similarly, the software must be compatible with various applications, powerful enough to bring multiple protocols and drivers into a single platform and able to offer secure communications and network redundancy.

For these reasons, the ideal choice in our view is a combination of the RXi2 box IPC from Emerson Automation, coupled with the Kepware OPC platform. The RXi2 is compact and designed to withstand temperatures from -20 to 65 degrees Celsius, while also being shock and vibration resistant. The RXi2 also uses Trusted Platform Module 2.0 and Microsoft Secure Boot technology to keep data stream secure at the local level.

Kepware’s OPC server then offers the flexibility, security and reliability to support continuous operation. The platform is IoT-ready and able to easily connect OT and IT systems, within a scalable unified architecture to bring all data into a single server. All communications are secured, authenticated and encrypted with SSL and TLS, and the platform offers several redundancy options to ensure uptime.

Industry thrives on the effective collection, communication and analysis of data. A dedicated black box OPC gateway offers businesses a way of connecting, monitoring and controlling all the systems needed to provide real-time data where it is most valuable — simply, securely and seamlessly.

Key Points

  • As analytics reporting relies on the quality and reliability of data acquisition, it’s important that businesses can unify systems
  • An OPC gateway device sits securely between IT and OT networks, managing data traffic across a multitude of devices
  • Defining the best hardware and OPC platform is vital, as ideally the device should be to set up and left to perform its job

David Evanson is corporate vendor relationship manager at Novotek UK and Ireland