Blurring the Distinction

E-mail Tom Kevan

For some time, IT professionals and factory floor engineers and operators have viewed business networks and sensing and control networks as two separate worlds. But the crush of competition and the drive of technology are proving them wrong.

The Way It Was
The reality of networking ensured that business systems and factory monitoring and control infrastructures were separate entities. Each world developed its own communications protocols based on applications-specific needs, such as data throughputs, latencies, reliability, and security. These protocols isolated the two spheres of operations by making it impossible—or at least very difficult and expensive—for them to talk to each other. Factory automation endured its own fieldbus wars, but the competition among these control networks hardly touched the business arena's IT departments.

The Way It Will Be
Two things are bringing this period of isolationism to a close: increasingly intense business competition—which demands greater levels of operating efficiency—and the evolution of technologies that promote heightened connectivity. Today, it is not only desirable for one department (e.g., sales or inventory control) in an enterprise to know what is going on in another (e.g., production); it is a necessity—survival depends on it.

Paralleling this development is the growing presence of nascent products that eliminate the technical barriers among the many flavors of business and industrial networks. The distinction between the two arenas is beginning to blur, as the two separate pieces become part of a larger enterprisewide network.

To get a better idea of what this technology looks like, consider a recent press release that appeared on Sensors Web site announcing Tendril and Atmel's cooperation on 802.15.4 deployments. Specifically, look at what Tendril's platform does.

"Tendril's distributed platform allows organizations to fully leverage the power of wireless sensor and control network (WSCN) implementations that integrate different types of low-power sensors/actuators with traditionally networked computing systems. The Tendril network operations platform provides an integrated server-side 'broker' and device-side 'agent,' along with associated network bridging software, for monitoring, managing, and integrating WSCNs."

According to Tendril, its technology bridges the gap between wireless sensor and control networks, which are often used in industrial and building automation applications, and traditional business systems and networks. The technology offers "foundational software services" that provide systemwide development tools, deployment engines, and professional services that allow the two types of networks to interact.

As products and technologies such as Tendril's achieve broader adoption, the networks of business operations will merge with those of the plant floor. Sensor data will be thrown into the same mix as sales or inventory information to enhance decision-making.

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