For much of the IT industry, enterprise connectivity revolves around connecting servers, storage and workstations with an eye toward improving the flow of financial, customer and other front-office data.
But in the realm of industrial control, there is a growing need to connect the manufacturing plant with the enterprise, preferably in such a way as to ensure protection against outside interference.
One of the newest tools in the effort is the OPC-UA (OLE for Processor Control - Unified Architecture), an open systems platform designed to reduce industry's dependence on the Microsoft COM/DCOM (component object model/distributed COM) system that the company has been downplaying since the introduction of .NET. The problem, according to Jim Luth, technical director of the OPC Foundation, is that while .NET did offer some expanded features, performance has suffered greatly. The OPC-UA aims not only to speed things up but to overcome many of the interface and incompatibility issues that exist between control networks and the enterprise using new Web services.
One of the first OPC-UA-compatible systems is ILS Technology's deviseWISE 2.0 platform, designed to foster seamless communication between the enterprise and intelligent devices like logic controllers and RFID readers. The system supports a wide range of messaging and broker systems for relational database systems from Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, Sybase and others.
Wireless connectivity is also a crucial aspect of industrial control. Synapse recently came out with a plug-and-play wireless control and monitoring network based on the Synapse RF Engine and the Synapse Network Appliance Protocol (SNAP). Using 2.4 GHz transceivers from Freescale Semiconductor, enterprises can set up a robust control network quickly without a lot of high-level programming.
Opening up the control network to wireless and IP technology has naturally led to growing concerns over security. The Australian government is particularly concerned about breaches of Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, which are heavily used by the utility, transportation and communications industries. Protecting control environments was one item on the agenda at this year's AusCERT, the Asia-Pacific security conference, and the government down under has established an industry working group to address potential problems.
Like the enterprise, control networks have benefits greatly over the past few decades from advances in information processing and data networking. The final step, then, is making sure these two worlds can talk to each other.