How to navigate the future of IIoT systems

It’s critical to understand which IIoT connectivity technologies to use for each application in the IIoT space.

Stan Schneider, PhD

Figure 1: This diagram shows a common misconception: that many technologies meet requirements in the IIoT connectivity space. The choices, given each application (X marks the spot), are B or C. If these technologies in fact overlapped, either B or C wouldThe Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) recently published the Industrial Internet Connectivity Framework (IICF) after two years of analyzing the IIoT technologies. The IICF includes the insights and strong opinions from many experts, including those from the top industry consortia, many companies, and most important standards.

The most surprising conclusion: the IIoT is big. Really big. It's so big that the technologies don't really overlap. The impression that there is overlap is mostly just confusion.

Designers may think to choose any standard, including the data distribution services (DDS from the Object Management Group), OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA), MQ Telemetry Transport (MQTT), or oneM2M and succeed. But this implies the IIoT connectivity solution space overlaps, as in Figure 1.

The reality is very different. The IIoT covers many industries and with very different use cases including industrial control, robotics, autonomous cars, aerospace, manufacturing, process control, central power generation, and distributed renewable energy. These are only a few of the hundreds of companies and thousands of applications in the IIoT space.

In fact, the IIoT space is so big that the technology options rarely, if ever, overlap. Today's architecture challenge in the IIoT space is therefore not one of choosing among overlapping technologies that may each be able to reasonably solve a problem. The challenge is understanding the technologies, comparing the intended use to the application, and choosing the one that best addresses the particular challenge the applications faces. Sure, stretching a technology all out of proportion may make anything work. But that will result in a lot of extra work and a suboptimal design. If you look at a more realistic map of the situation, it looks more like the sparse Venn diagram in Figure 2 than the overlapping one in Figure 1.

Figure 2: This diagram is closer to reality. The connectivity technologies turn out to not overlap. Most applications can only logically use one technology. The challenge is often choosing something imperfect and making it work. Courtesy: Real-Time InnovaThe lack of overlap in the IIoT space actually makes an architect's task much simpler. The real problem isn't choosing between similar options; it's understanding the very different options and overcoming biases. The IICF directly addresses this. 

How to choose technology for the IIoT

Let's take this process a bit further. It's possible to ask a few questions for each technology option and quickly narrow the choices. These questions may somewhat oversimplify the problem, but they are a great starting point. The IICF identifies four potential "core connectivity standards" DDS, OPC UA, oneM2M, and RESTful HTTP. The first three are analyzed below. RESTful HTTP is well understood, so it's not analyzed here. MQTT is also examined because of its wide awareness, even though it doesn't qualify as an IICF "core connectivity standard" because it doesn't have a standard typing system required for interoperability. 


Here are five questions to answer to decide if you need DDS:

1. Is it a big problem if your system stops working for a short time?

2. Have you said either "millisecond" or "microsecond" in the last two weeks?

3. Do you have more than 10 software engineers?

4. Are you sending data to many places, as opposed to just one (like to the cloud or a database)?

5. Are you implementing a new IIoT architecture?

If the answer to three out of the five questions was "yes," DDS is needed.

DDS is the standard that defines a databus. A databus is data-centric information flow control. It's a similar concept to a database, which is data-centric information storage. The key difference: a database saves old information that can be searched by relating properties of the stored data. A databus manages future information by filtering by properties of the incoming data. Both understand the data contents and let applications act directly on and through the data rather than with each other. Applications using a database or a databus do not have a direct relationship with peer applications.

With knowledge of the structure, contents and demands on data, the databus can manage the dataflow. It can,for instance, resolve redundancy, eliminating repeat updates and managing multiple sources, sinks and networks. The databus can control Quality of Service (QoS) like update rate, reliability and guaranteed notification of data liveliness. It can look at the updates and optimize how to send them, or decide not to send them at all. It also can discover and control and secure data flows, offering them to applications and generic tools alike. This accessible data greatly eases system integration and scale.

So how does this satisfy the five questions?

1. Since it's directly controlling flow, a databus does not require servers. So, there's no single point of failure. The downtime required to reboot a server and remake connections unexpectedly is never necessary. Without direct relationships with peers, redundancy is transparent. So, you can easily have failover applications, sensors and even networks. If the application is managing a thermostat or checking if there's milk in the fridge, these things aren't worth it. But, if the software is responsible for someone's breathing, or the stability of the Western power grid, or a carbot traveling at 180 mph down a future freeway, even short interruptions can't be tolerated.

2. Since the databus has full control over how data flows, it can send information directly between peers in times measured in milliseconds or microseconds. DDS can use multicast intelligently when available. It knows delivery deadline requirements and can measure if the system is meeting delivery times. So, it can warn applications if the network (or anything else) can't handle the needed flow rates. Currently available performance on a LAN supports feedback loops with a 30-microsecond delivery window. These metrics will improve with new real-time networking, such as the evolving IEEE Time Sensitive Networking (TSN) effort.

3. Teams of programmers must control interfaces between modules. The databus specifies a full data model. All connectivity frameworks do this to some extent, but the databus specification is much more expressive than others. It includes not only type information, but also QoS like deadlines, sensor availability and flow rates. So, the interfaces between teams are no longer just captured on paper or header files. The interfaces are defined carefully and then enforced at runtime. The databus can even manage the evolution of those interfaces, allowing modules, for instance, that use newer and older versions of an interface to interoperate. That's critical for a practical large IIoT system. DDS is a powerful software integration framework.

4. A databus controls flow between many complex applications. It really shines where there's a mix of fast and slow components, when careful filtering can make the overall flow manageable, when multiple field-based components need that data, and when those flows must be guaranteed. When only trying to capture sensor information to send it to the cloud for analysis, there are simpler solutions, like MQTT.

5. Finally, a databus requires that you build a truly new architecture. While most implementations have legacy subsystems to be integrated, a databus design is not best used to optimize an existing design. A databus is best used to build a new generation or a new type of system. DDS is used in more than 1,000 designs; most all are building something new rather than optimizing something old.

Most databus systems don't need all five of these properties. But, three of the five is plenty to make a databus design truly compelling. 


OPC UA technology targets device interoperability. Before OPC UA (or its predecessor OPC), applications simply accessed devices directly through proprietary application program interfaces (APIs) provided by device vendors. Unfortunately, this meant that applications became dependent on the particular device they controlled. Worse, higher-level applications such as human-machine interfaces (HMI) had no easy way to find, connect to or control the various devices in factories.

OPC UA divides system software into clients and servers. The servers usually reside on a device or higher-level Programmable Logic Controller (PLC). They provide a way to access the device through a standard "device model." There are standard device models for dozens of types of devices from sensor to feedback controllers. Each manufacturer is responsible for providing the server that maps the generic device model to its particular device. The servers expose an object-oriented, remotely-callable API that implements the device model.

Clients can connect to a device and call functions from the generic device model. Thus, client software is independent of the actual device, and factory integrators are free to switch manufacturers or models as needed. So, OPC UA provides the connectivity needed to drive the system. Note that the device model also provides a level of "semantic" interoperability, because the device model defines the generic object APIs in known units and specified reference points.

Determine if OPC UA should be used by answering the following questions:

1. Are you in in discrete manufacturing?

2. Are you building a device that will be integrated by industrial engineers or technicians, rather than software engineers?

3. Will your product be used in different applications in different systems, as opposed to one (type of) system where you control the architecture?

4. Have you said the word "workcell" in the last two weeks?

If the answer to the majority of these questions is "yes" then OPC UA is likely a good choice. Why? Let's look at how the technology fits these use case indicators:

1. OPC UA is well-positioned for discrete manufacturing. The German initiative Industrie 4.0 recommends it. Industrie 4.0 is very focused on manufacturing, in contrast to the IIC that works on IIoT technical system architecture across verticals. In a sound bite, Industrie 4.0 is about making things, while the IIC is about making things work. This is another good example of the bigness of the space. In the market, DDS has few applications in discrete manufacturing, while OPC UA has few outside.

2. OPC UA is a software architecture. However, those using and choosing it usually target users who are not software engineers. In fact, one of the reasons for its popularity in manufacturing is that there are few software engineers in manufacturing settings. System integration in manufacturing is usually done between devices, not software modules. OPC UA has very helpful device models that aid in interoperability between device manufacturers. It is not designed as a powerful software integration environment for teams of programmers.

3. OPC UA has a powerful system discovery mechanism called an "address space." It builds an object hierarchy covering all the devices and subsystems at runtime. This can be rolled up to a site-wide server, for instance, and the system connected to a site HMI. This dynamic system building is very useful for providing similar functionality, such as historian storage or HMI viewing to very different applications. It is appropriate where your users control the system design, not you. On the other hand, a software architect that needs to define the system architecture may feel constrained by lack of system modeling and the simple "peek and poke" flavor of the data interchange.

4. Most OPC UA systems end up in workcells. A workcell is a stand-alone subsystem, usually incorporating 20 devices or so. OPC UA, and especially the industrial-integration software that supports it, targets workcell integration. The address model and object-oriented nature directly support a hierarchy of these workcells. Users of the other standards rarely characterize their use cases as "workcells." 

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