Balance Access and Security with Hybrid-SaaS Connectivity

The latest SaaS software technology complements on-premises OT automation, giving engineers fast, effective connectivity without sacrificing security.

PTC has sponsored this post.

Today’s manufacturing industry is increasingly powered by data. Decisions and process improvements are informed by data gathered from smart (and legacy) equipment. With an increased focus on analysis and digitalization, manufacturers need effective tools to connect operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) systems to collect data. In addition, the manufacturing industry is shifting toward remote management of assets and automation.

(Image: PTC.)

(Image: PTC.)

Industrial Connectivity: Past and Present

Ten years ago, software-as-a-service (SaaS) emerged as a dominant model for software sales. Many industrial companies that could not invest in these new cloud-based systems because of cost or security concerns instead opted for on-premises servers that hosted data securely air-gapped against online threats.

Today, however, there are few on-premises solutions more secure than the serious security infrastructure in place at cloud hosting providers such as AWS, Microsoft, Siemens or PTC. Security has come a long way, and the high maintenance cost and scalability challenges of on-premises computing means companies today are choosing SaaS more often.

According to Emily Griffin, Senior Product Manager, Kepware segment at PTC, industrial customers are trying to find the balance between the realities of conducting business and potential security concerns. “At the end of the day, when you think about people needing to remotely manage data and applications, if that remote access takes weeks to approve, it’s going to cost them a lot of money. So immediately, customers have to weigh the trade-offs,” says Griffin.

Because hybrid-SaaS products such as Kepware+ provide direct access to specific controls, remote access now limits the threat when compared to having remote access to the entire desktop or server. “It’s providing a purpose-built solution to some of those access and security considerations,” says Griffin.

The Need for Enterprise Connectivity

As the market has evolved to appreciate the benefits of SaaS solutions, many industrial customers are now reaching the point where it would be difficult to live without it.

(Image: PTC.)

(Image: PTC.)

“A trend that we’re seeing is that an engineer sitting at a desk in Texas is responsible for managing installations in locations around the world, like in the U.S. and Italy and Singapore,” says Griffin. “These emerging trends have hastened the evolution and modernization of industrial connectivity.”

For example, a cloud-based control-plane solution, accessible remotely, provides a complete single source of truth for all equipment on the shopfloor. “We hear this from customers all the time,” says Griffin. “They say, ‘we don’t even know what assets we have across all of our installations.’”

If you don’t know how many PLCs you actually have, Griffin says you aren’t alone.

“People buy new equipment all the time—there are things shoved in closets that nobody knows about, old equipment that hasn’t been used in years—it’s more common than you think,” she says.

Finding the Answers

SaaS for industrial connectivity presents an enormous opportunity to manage dispersed industrial assets at scale to save time and cost while optimizing productivity. For connected enterprises, a single interface across the industrial automation landscape means that individual devices can be managed remotely and securely.

In brief, Kepware is the industry-leading industrial automation solution that connects diverse information from shopfloor assets and brings it into a digestible format for IT and OT software.

“Manufacturers have all these different machines speaking all these different languages, and Kepware acts as a universal translator,” says Griffin. “Kepware normalizes all that data and makes it consumable for whatever application needs to use it.”

Integrating a SaaS control-plane with Kepware+ means customers still have an on-premises server with on-premises data translation, accessible via a cloud-based user experience. In this hybrid model, on-site servers roll up under a single cloud-based control umbrella.

Manufacturers Demand a Single Control Plane for Connectivity

Today’s manufacturing landscape is increasingly competitive. As technology advances, manufacturers need to make investments strategically to remain in play. Automation is one example of this productivity arms race, and so is digital transformation. Companies need to do more with less, and do it faster, while making more money.

“There’s a reason people don’t touch this stuff,” says Griffin. “We’ve heard from customers that may have 50 servers at each of 50 installations, and it takes eight hours to upgrade each one. That’s one of the reasons why so many OT operations still run old operating systems (OS) like Windows 7. In the future, Kepware+ will give customers the ability to remotely update and license their servers. It provides massive efficiency to these customers.”

These efficiencies will go beyond version updates to include scheduled security patches to maximize uptime across the entire organization. It allows organizations to manage IT and OT operations at scale.

SaaS Connectivity Outcomes

So, what are the outcomes manufacturers are looking to achieve by streamlining their industrial connectivity and adopting a single control plane? According to Griffin, the key outcomes revolve around added efficiency on tasks that provide compounded time and cost savings. For example, a single configuration change across an organization of devices has massive costs when a human needs to physically visit and touch each device. When the change can be made remotely, the cost and savings are obvious and significant.

“We’re not even compounding this by the fact that you may have also had to wait weeks for IT to grant the access to make that change. So, it’s many multiplication factors when it comes to how many personnel are touching these things, before factoring in the implications of allowing them inside the framework to manage the configuration.”

Looking into the future, the development of industrial hybrid-SaaS connectivity is spurred on by emerging trends. The ability to remotely standardize or templatize configuration across devices such as PLCs throughout the organization provides many benefits. Building failover redundancy between primary and secondary services does too.

“There’s a whole host of applications in the category of OT management capabilities,” said Emily. “But we’re also seeing emerging trends around the data itself. Today, customers don’t just want to translate and store data. They want to establish triggers for data, or to model and contextualize data, perform advanced transformation of data. So, we are very actively looking at ways we can satisfy those customer requirements in the next generation of Kepware,” said Emily.

 Learn more about Kepware+.