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Industrial Internet Consortium tackles interoperability

In this Q&A, Executive Director Richard Soley explains why Cisco, IBM and other heavyweights are collaborating on interoperability testing for the industrial Internet of Things.

Connecting billions of sensors and other IP-enabled devices in the Internet of Things (IoT) will be a daunting...

exercise in interoperability, even in plants and warehouses that already have machine-to-machine communication. This year, five IoT heavyweights -- AT&T, Cisco, GE, IBM and Intel-- started the nonprofit Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) to come up with requirements for open interoperability standards and common architectures. talked with Executive Director Richard Soley about the IIC's progress. Soley is the longtime head of the Object Management Group (OMG), a standards consortium based in Needham, Mass.

What is the Industrial Internet?

Richard Soley: Industrial Internet is the application of IoT technologies to industrial systems. It's the collision between the industrial revolution and the Internet revolution.

Quite amazingly, you find [that] industrial revolution solutions -- power generation, power distribution, jet engine maintenance, medical device interoperability, financial services interoperability -- have not really been affected by the Internet revolution.

It's a lack of Internet thinking. They designed these systems and a way of thinking about these systems before the Internet revolution.

Richard Soley, Industrial Internet ConsortiumRichard Soley
Industrial Internet Consortium

I'll give you a very specific example. When a plane lands at an airport, you would think that the jet engines, which have been collecting performance data through the entire flight, would connect to the airport wireless -- because every airport has Wi-Fi -- upload their performance data directly to the jet manufacturer, who would do benchmarking on the fly against the flight hours of that engine on that kind of wing to the last million hours, see some potential performance issues, and send preventive maintenance instructions by email directly to the maintenance lead at the base.

In fact, it's nothing like that. What really happens is, if the maintenance guy's got time while the jet's on the tarmac, he might plug a cable into the jet to download the data at the end of the shift. He might notice there's a couple of funky numbers, and he might email them off to someone at the jet manufacturer, who at the end of the week or the end of the month might run them through the benchmark application and say, "Holy mother of God! Better track down airplane N5763, because the left engine is about to fail."

Jet engine efficiency and uptime are so good now that it's not an enormous problem. But think about the saving just in preventive maintenance. If you can shave a couple of percent off the cost of preventive maintenance, you can save billions of dollars a year worldwide.

My perception is that people like General Electric and its CEO Jeff Immelt and maybe Lockheed-Martin have been doing things like this already, or talking a lot about the Industrial Internet. Who in aerospace is either on the consortium or ahead of the curve?

Soley: The IIC exists not to develop standards but specifically to help its members define, build [and] develop success criteria for test beds so we can actually build prototypes, learn what works, where the disruptive technology is and is going to be, where the disruptive opportunities for services are. And then our members can use that data to go out and disrupt markets.

Some people have already been doing that. General Electric was one of the five founding members, and absolutely, that's one of the things that they're looking for. They already have pretty successful solutions for predictive preventive maintenance in a bunch of markets.

It's true of all five of the founding members. They're already trying to build solutions, and they're looking for a way to do it together, because the data sources, the amount of data, and the huge amount of integration that you've got to do to do any sort of predictive analytics is going to require partnerships.

If you look at GE, they're interested in financial services integration, medical systems and they're interested in things that turn: jet engines, power generators, and oil drilling and so forth.

AT&T obviously sees this as a huge opportunity for connecting systems that is going to require connectedness at a much higher rate than today. Intel feels that means you're going to need to have a lot more processing power at the edge of the network. IBM is a soup-to-nuts provider, so their initial participation was from their research group that works on smart energy grids. But now that they're involved, they're involved across the board, not just hardware and software but IBM Global Services. Cisco is focused on the network. They see that you're going to have to have much larger networks and a much better architecture for integrating systems.

Who are some of the other IoT organizations, and how do their roles differ from, complement or maybe even compete with what you do?

Soley: We don't actually have any competition at this point. There's a large number of organizations with names like the IoT Consortium, the AllSeen Alliance, the Open Interconnect Consortium. All of those organizations are either open source development organizations or open standards organizations, and IIC is neither of those. Some confusion might come from the fact that IIC is managed by the OMG, which is the standards organization. We would not have created another standards organization.

In the Industrial Internet space, there are plenty of standards already. That's not the problem. The problem is you have to build these partnerships between a large number of small and large companies and try something out -- test bed it -- [to] see what works.

The consortium was officially announced on March 27. How are things going, and what are we going to see next?

Soley: We expected to hit 50 [members] by the end of the year -- we hit 70 after less than five months.

We haven't published a whole lot yet. There's a piece on the website about the successes of the first four months, and they're not test beds, because before you build test beds, you've got to have a shared vocabulary and you have to have a shared architecture and use cases. But it's pretty amazing how quickly these strongly competing companies have agreed on things like use cases. We've already published the first few [and] those will drive test beds. We're in the middle of test bed development now.

We've been a little slowed down recently on the vocabulary front because NIST -- the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology -- has also decided to run a project to develop vocabulary for IoT. Because we don't want that to diverge, IIC's CTO, Stephen Mellor, is leading that effort as well as the IIC effort. There's a fair amount of coordination that has to be done. You don't want two major vocabularies competing.

Next Steps

Read a definition of the Internet of Things

Understand IoT trends

Learn about the IoT impact supply chains

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