Using cloud computing in automation

Using cloud computing in automation
Published: 24 January 2019 - 12:30 p.m.

By now, almost every automation engineer and software developer is aware that information technology and control technology are merging together irreversibly. Cloud technology, for example, is practically unlimited in scalability. Furthermore, not much effort is required to implement it and keep it updated. And ultimately, new software solutions can be put into operation more quickly (lead image).

As automation advances and the future-oriented Industrie 4.0 project is put into practice, various challenges are coming to light, including the question of how legacy devices are able to interact with new technologies. Where a cloud solution is used in industrial systems, another key issue is that of data security and sovereignty. How is the PROFICLOUD from Phoenix Contact different to other proposals? What applications has it already been used to create, and how does it guarantee access security and future viability?

The PROFICLOUD is an IoT platform that went live at the beginning of 2016; since then, many users have been able to utilize the existing services made available through PROFICLOUD or develop their own solutions. What really makes it stand out from the crowd is that Phoenix Contact not only provides a platform, it also covers all aspects of cloud-based automation, from hardware components through to entire industry-specific concepts.

Self-registration and immediate access

When PROFICLOUD was being developed, openness was considered an important factor, as was making sure that installation and operation were simple. Whereas some comparable industrial cloud solutions charge for registration and stipulate that the account has to be activated manually by the provider, the PROFICLOUD relies on a universal self-service model. Any user can register on the homepage www.proficloud.net and will be granted immediate access to the applications on offer. What's more, users are able to record their components in their own account or test solutions they have created themselves. They can also invite other PROFICLOUD users into their account so they can share data with multiple people or services.

Automatic connection to the PROFICLOUD

At the moment, the PROFICLOUD consists of two different concepts: the PROFINET solution enables the PROFINET protocol to be expanded with smart cloud solutions, whereas the TSD solution is used to permanently save and analyze time series data in the cloud.

In the PROFINET solution, the PROFICLOUD application is normally made up of at least one PROFICLOUD coupler, one PROFICLOUD device, and one PROFINET controller (Figure 1). The PROFINET controller can be purchased from any controller manufacturer as long as the device complies with the PROFINET specification. The PROFICLOUD coupler connects the local PROFINET network to the PROFICLOUD via two Ethernet interfaces. While one interface serves to establish a connection to the local PROFINET system, the second Ethernet interface provides the connection to the Internet. The coupler then automatically initializes a connection with the PROFICLOUD and is ready for use after a short amount of time. The same applies to PROFICLOUD devices that are also simply connected to the Internet and automatically connect to the PROFICLOUD.

This easy way of using the PROFINET protocol over the Internet is already implemented in multiple applications all over the world. It enables remote stations to exchange process data with a central controller, plus the automation station is able to request weather-related information available on the Internet directly and apply it accordingly.

An easy-to-configure introduction to the world of the IoT

Phoenix Contact offers two devices for the TSD solution (time series data): one of these is the AXC F 2152 Axioline controller based on PLCnext Technology, the other is the Cloud IoT Gateway (Figure 2). Both components help companies take their first steps into the Internet of Things (IoT). The PROFICLOUD provides users a safe and intuitively configurable introduction to the world of the IoT, so they can benefit from the huge range of advantages the cloud platform has to offer. Both the controller and the gateway include a direct connection to the PROFICLOUD. Once the devices have been linked to the PROFICLOUD, the data transmitted by them appears in the cloud immediately. A further mouse click then leads to the TSD Analytics application. Using the open-source platform, individual dashboards can be created and freely configured online (Figure 3).

Individual app development

PROFICLOUD technology is an open system, where the right solution can be created for every application – whether it is cloud-based data acquisition and analysis or a complete automation concept. Users are also able to forward data to other cloud-based systems, which can evaluate the data in greater detail and, amongst other things, identify when preventive maintenance is required. The worldwide scalability of PROFICLOUD solutions means that global analyses can provide useful insights for system optimization.

PROFICLOUD applications are easy to set up. Users just need the free software development kit for Java (SDK4J) to program their solutions for the PROFICLOUD. There is no need for expensive developer licenses. The solution can either be designed as a virtual PROFINET device or a complete solution, which is able to use functions from different PROFICLOUD components. Users can also develop their own smartphone apps with SDK4J. Machine status changes and alarms can be sent directly to the smartwatch on the operator's wrist, where information messages can be acknowledged quickly.

Data transmission with secure access

PROFICLOUD's flexible, expandable IoT architecture makes it easy to use mobile apps and cloud services, and to connect to existing IT systems. All data transmission performed by PROFICLOUD devices is protected through TLS 1.2 encryption (Transport Layer Security). Since it is the only one able to initiate a connection to other PROFICLOUD devices, the solution fulfils two fundamental aspects of security (Figure 4). Even the web application for configuring the PROFICLOUD is transmitted to users via HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) and is thus protected against unwanted access. Of course, users can install additional security measures to provide the application with even greater protection against cyber attacks. Despite the security concepts already described, the PROFICLOUD has proven itself to be easy to use and firewall-friendly, since it exchanges data through standard Internet port 443.

Not dependent on specific manufacturers

Another distinguishing feature of the PROFICLOUD is how open it is in all areas. In this case, the use of open-source software is a prerequisite and one which is consistently pursued during development. But why is open source being used in a commercial solution? Open-source systems are independent of any particular provider and so do not lead to yet another vendor lock-in. What's more, they promote innovation throughout the entire business, in many cases saving time and money. The benefits that come from collaborating in open-source communities and using agile development methods are also ideal for designing cloud-based solutions.

The way in which the PROFICLOUD enables solutions to be customized makes it easy for users to create their own innovations. Subsequently, their solutions can keep pace with changing business requirements. Thanks to the open APIs (application programming interfaces) provided, developers can adapt the solutions as necessary and – once they have been downloaded – modify them at will: the code can be removed, added, or adjusted. Extensions to an open-source platform therefore prove themselves to be not only simpler, but also more stable.

Rapid implementation of project ideas

The combination of open-source software (OSS) and agile development methods is also a guarantee that project ideas will be quickly transformed into initial prototypes, which form the basis for discussions and tests. So users no longer have to wait a long time for the first test versions to become available; instead, they can examine preliminary results and discuss them with stakeholders after just a few days. This ensures the results meet the audience's exact expectations. So it comes as no surprise that startups, services, and applications always rely on open source. Their flexibility and strong innovative drive ensure that customized applications also become successful in the PROFICLOUD.

As an open cloud system, the PROFICLOUD avoids being dependent on a single manufacturer, since a PROFICLOUD solution could be developed and maintained by several providers or even run on different cloud platforms. And as a result, cross-cloud solutions created to meet the individual demands of a particular company can be developed.

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