System Integration

Integrators improve service value by moving providing an XaaS model

Integrators improve their value to manufacturers by adapting to a delivery system inspired by a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, which takes on many forms

By Stephen J. Malyszko December 16, 2020
Courtesy: Malisko Engineering Inc.

XaaS is a general term referring to the delivery of anything “as a service” usually over the internet. The vast number of products, tools, services and technologies suppliers now deliver to users as a service over a network — typically the internet — can be included. Anything provided locally or onsite within a plant operation does not count.

Internet delivery of critical services for the plant floor are not widely accepted. That said, a number of components comprising a plant’s automation systems cannot be included in the XaaS model and will remain on-premises. Some components, such as Internet of Things (IoT) platforms, are more adaptable to a cloud-based infrastructure because they are more informational in nature lending themselves to remote access and remote support. Private cloud infrastructures onsite also are conducive to remote management.

Some of our clients were engaging in serious dialogue about leveraging the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and digital transformation to enhance their manufacturing operations and, thus, improve their profits, market growth and sustainability.

Then COVID-19 hit. Clients curtailed discussions relating to IIoT. Their focus turned toward keeping their manufacturing facilities operational along with how they could address “contact tracing” in their plants to minimize the risk of shutting down production due to COVID-19. Many clients prohibited all outside contractors, including system integrators, from entering their plants. There also seemed to be an ever-increasing challenge for system integrators to get their clients engaged in physical design reviews, code reviews, panel checkouts and factory acceptance tests (FATs).

Figure 1: Many system integrators provide on-premises service and support, which is best represented by an operational technology (OT) stack. Courtesy: Malisko Engineering Inc.

Figure 1: Many system integrators provide on-premises service and support, which is best represented by an operational technology (OT) stack. Courtesy: Malisko Engineering Inc.

Travel restrictions, travel costs, travel time and time away from the factory were the primary reasons for the client’s pushback to be involved. COVID-19 has caused a shift in how clients view spending related to manufacturing automation, IIoT, digital transformation and the essential technical resources to support these platforms. Clients thirst for applications and professional services that leverage remote platforms and allow quick access to technical services when needed without the need for someone to physically travel to their plant.

System integrators adjusting service models

To remain relevant and of value to their clients, SIs must consider adjusting their service models to align with their clients’ needs. Perhaps integrators need to alter their business model of delivering services to its clients by moving from on-premises only to a delivery system inspired by the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. Other models, however, do exist; let’s examine them.

Many system integrators currently provide on-premises service and support, when requested by the client, across the components of a contemporary manufacturing automation operational technology (OT) stack, as illustrated in Figure 1. The integrator often reacts to the needs or requests of its clients for troubleshooting services, upgrades to existing components or additions to the control system to handle new equipment for process, packaging, assembly, storage or utilities.

In some cases, the integrator has an embedded resource physically located within the client’s facility; five (5) days each week, eight (8) hours each day. This model can work so long as all the problems, issues and requests by plant production, maintenance and operations occur in that 8-hour window each day.

The traditional on-premises services model is becoming less attractive and practical for clients. The need for social distancing, fear of quarantine, reduced capital and operational budgets, reductions in plant personnel head count along with the never-ending corporate edict to maintain high production goals causes clients to search for better solutions from its suppliers, including its system integrators. Here’s where the automation SI needs to evaluate how best to adjust their services offering model to remain relevant to its clients and continue to generate revenue for themselves and work opportunities for their employees.

An elementary support model an SI could consider offering to their clients is infrastructure as a service (IaaS); as illustrated in Figure 2. Traditional IaaS refers to an instant computing infrastructure, provisioned and managed over the internet. The industrial version focuses on the on-premises “solution stack” comprised of server, network, hypervisor and virtual machines (VMs). The assets are physically located within the client’s facilities.  However, the SI remotely manages and monitors the health and integrity of the infrastructure. The integrators also can manage software/hardware lifecycle and system patching.

Figure 2: The industrial information-as-a-service (IaaS) model version focuses on the on-premises solution stack comprised of server, network, hypervisor and virtual machines (VMs). Courtesy: Malisko Engineering Inc.

Figure 2: The industrial information-as-a-service (IaaS) model version focuses on the on-premises solution stack comprised of server, network, hypervisor and virtual machines (VMs). Courtesy: Malisko Engineering Inc.

IaaS, in the OT space, can take on the feel of becoming a client’s outsourced industrial IT support provider, monitoring all of the infrastructure that supports the client’s industrial data center in addition to providing a possible lease of sorts on the network and computing hardware itself. It may not be practical, however, for an integrator to lease data center hardware.

One of the bigger struggles for 24/7 manufacturing operations is the daunting task of lifecycle management of network and server hardware. IT departments often want to swap out hardware every 3-5 years for enterprise IT gear. However, that is not practical for critical OT systems, especially for industries required to meet regulatory compliance. An effective IaaS strategy for OT would ensure the installed system has resiliency built-in and provides scalability for years to come.

An IaaS agreement in this manner also usually comes with next-day delivery of spare parts and in some cases are hot-swappable as is the case with a fault-tolerant server where there is duplex hardware by design.

Automated health and security monitoring systems for OT

Some clients are already deploying automated OT health and security monitoring systems provided by SIs under the IaaS model. Key to this OT monitoring are centralized asset visibility, real-time health monitoring and asset and location security tracking.

Centralized asset visibility is giving the client automated asset discovery, thus eliminating tedious IP spreadsheets and inventory of IP-based OT assets. Real-time health monitoring is providing clients with a centralized monitoring user interface together with real-time alerts to abnormal OT asset behavior. Security tracking is allowing clients to gain visibility into user access to their critical plant assets along with getting alerts about “unusual” geographic access attempts from hackers.

Clients have tangible business justification for making investments with their partner system integrators in monitoring the health and well-being of the OT assets. Most notable is a reduction in, or hopefully, eliminating unplanned downtime and lost production via continuous OT monitoring. Other cost savings will likely include ensuring software license compliance on key assets as well as helping create proactive break/fix policies that mitigate lost production opportunities. Another crucial cost avoidance is minimizing or eliminating the impact from security breaches.

Another step an SI might consider taking is to adapt their business model, or at least a portion of it, to providing an industrial-specific adaptation of the platform-as-a-service (PaaS) as illustrated in Figure 3. This specific adaptation is referring to the SI setting up and maintaining simulation and development environments for their customers. This is often done onsite, but in this PaaS environment, all physical equipment such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs), servers and networks reside on the SI’s premises or in the cloud. I/O assemblies, instrumentation and sensors are, generally, replaced by virtual devices via simulation software platforms.

Setup, configuration and maintenance of operating systems, software updates, storage and infrastructure are handled by the SI. A PaaS model is intended to provide a platform for application software creation, development and testing free of the hassle and headache of maintaining the hardware/software platforms. This PaaS model could also be used for training of client’s operational and technical support resources.

No control of physical devices is intended in this sort PaaS development environment. The SI could provide this platform to its clients, as a fee-based service, for application development of control, human-machine interface (HMI), historians or reporting. Process or machine simulation could also be an added service offering. The OT stack illustrated in Figure 3 could be hosted on the SI’s private cloud infrastructure, or on an external service such as AWS (Amazon Web Services) or Microsoft Azure.

Figure 3: A platform-as-a-service (PaaS) model is intended to provide a platform for application software creation, development and testing free of the hassle and headache of maintaining the hardware/software platforms. Courtesy: Malisko Engineering Inc.

Figure 3: A platform-as-a-service (PaaS) model is intended to provide a platform for application software creation, development and testing free of the hassle and headache of maintaining the hardware/software platforms. Courtesy: Malisko Engineering Inc.

This variation of the PaaS model provides an improved platform for development and testing. What it does not provide is a means to support the daily needs of the operational manufacturing plant. If, or when, an integrator is savvy enough to provide PaaS — onsite or remote — the next logical step is to provide purpose-built applications that could be offered in an SaaS model.

SaaS, as illustrated in Figure 4, has high potential as customers seek modern consumption of data in the form of IoT applications. SaaS, by definition, is a software licensing model in which access to the software is provided on a subscription basis, with the software being located on external servers, typically in the cloud, rather than on servers located in-house. The user only concerns themselves with using the application(s) and the generated data for their needs. The user does not worry about any of the components in the automation hierarchy. The SI can provide an optimal service level to its client by offering subscription-based services tailored to the client’s specific application use case.

As illustrated in Figure 4, the SI may already be familiar with the entire stack, and with SaaS the SI now becomes a value-added services provider spanning the entire spectrum of the client’s control and data acquisition systems. The client’s operating expenses are kept in check since no additional head count occurs.  Timely response by qualified technical professionals occurs via hot line call-ins to the SI or by leveraging modern collaboration platforms such as Cisco Webex with remote expert capabilities. Operating expense budgets can be maintained as the client enters into a recurring fee-based subscription with the SI. Further advantages the client might see are lower costs and less reliance on their hands-on responsibility, automatic software and firmware upgrades, access to status and data from almost anywhere via a secure IoT application portal.

Figure 4: With software as a service (SaaS), the SI now becomes a value-added services provider spanning the entire spectrum of the client’s control and data acquisition systems. Courtesy: Malisko Engineering Inc.

Figure 4: With software as a service (SaaS), the SI now becomes a value-added services provider spanning the entire spectrum of the client’s control and data acquisition systems. Courtesy: Malisko Engineering Inc.

SaaS also could be the applications running on the platform. An SI could, in theory, license any application development/support as SaaS running on the platforms the SI is already managing in a PaaS model. If the SI wants to go true SaaS, then the SI will likely limit its focus on cloud-based applications that are more along the lines of information-only IoT apps. Application marketplaces for IIoT apps could become commonplace where the SI could post fee-based offerings based on their specific domain expertise of their chosen industry focus.

The SaaS model can be applied to any number of applications within the array of industries served by system integrators. A few of the more common applications include real-time health-check monitoring of plant floor assets, real-time monitoring of energy consumption, gathering data from the process cells and work cells to feed predictive maintenance models.

Today’s SIs face challenges providing valuable services to their clients as well as helping them achieve their business goals and maintaining business sustainability moving into the future. Clients will continue engaging SIs in greenfield projects, brownfield projects, upgrade projects and continuous improvement projects. As clients look to streamline their operations due to COVID-19, the SI should be proactive in adjusting their services model to create offerings that better align with their client’s business and operational needs.

Malisko Engineering Inc. is a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). The company received the 2015 System Integrator of the Year Award in 2015.

This article appeared in the Global System Integrator Report.


Stephen J. Malyszko
Author Bio: Stephen J. Malyszko, chief executive officer, Malisko Engineering Inc.