IoT brownfield technologies

Brownfield IoT Technologies: Extending the Internet of Things to Legacy Devices

This article outlines the concepts of greenfield and brownfield and provides an overview of strategies for bringing IoT technologies to brownfield environments. After a brief look into current industry trends, the article offers a concrete solution.  

How do you create value when it comes to the Internet of Things? While transitioning to Industry 4.0 is no longer simply a trend but a necessity, an ongoing concern for decision-makers is finding a solution that is actionable and feasible. And the difficulties begin with collecting data at the edge and communicating that data to the cloud.

Brownfield vs Greenfield

The term greenfield was originally used in construction to designate land that has never been used and therefore, involves no need to rebuild or to demolish existing infrastructures. In software development, the term references software built from scratch, in a new environment, without the necessity to consider prior work or to integrate with other systems. Greenfield, in sum, suggests a straightforward process and infrastructural homogeneity. Also, greenfield means a relatively low entry threshold—you start with a clean slate, without the burden of past development efforts.

The downside of greenfield development

How about the downside? For one thing, greenfield products may force companies to dispose of devices that could have served them for decades. Starting with a clean slate, at times, means discarding everything that had existed so far. The compatibility issue is particularly poignant with industrial manufacturers. Here, going greenfield means that whole infrastructures will need to be replaced.

As Ben Dickson predicted in 2016, “Such efforts cause the IoT landscape growing in many different directions at the same time, effectively becoming a fragmented hodgepodge of incompatible and non-interoperable standards and protocols.” Surely enough, this does not quite sound like the IoT vision of pervasive connectivity and an ecology of unsupervised autonomously communicating devices.

Challenges to brownfield development

What is brownfield, then, and is it any better? Brownfield designates industrial or commercial property that is either underused or considered as a potential site for redevelopment. In urban planning, this is an area that has been previously built on. In software development, this is software building on heritage systems or created to work alongside already existing systems. Implementing IoT technologies in brownfield scenarios poses a similar challenge.

Rather than freely building from scratch, one has to consider the existing architectures and work within pre-established constraints. Heightened implementation effort is needed here as well. The heritage hardware and software may have taken years to put in use and cannot simply be discarded. When it comes to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), companies need to build on infrastructures that cannot be easily replaced or where a replacement is not commercially viable. The challenges pile up—taking legacy devices and connecting them to the cloud, maintaining connectivity, collecting data, and performing data analytics now take place within a highly heterogeneous landscape.

Extending the brownfield with an IoT platform

To say that implementing brownfield IoT technologies is challenging would be an understatement. Within an increasingly diversified IoT landscape, however, finding actionable IoT brownfield solutions gets all the more interesting. Services such as Reswarm—our IoT platform that acts as an end-to-end enabler integrating an app development studio with a device management suite—allow IoT devices to seamlessly connect, bringing forth their functionality and power within a heterogeneous landscape.

The platform allows you to connect legacy devices coming from different vendors as well as devices belonging to different generations. Our aim has been to facilitate communication between both intra-gen and cross-vendor devices. Further, our purpose is to anticipate next-gen advancements and make our platform ready to accommodate future products. On the platform, you have a device management studio where you create and connect individual IoT devices or device groups, re-group your existing IoT devices, or generate different group levels where a device can belong to several classification groups simultaneously.

Connect your legacy devices on one IoT platform

Strategies for the Brownfield

Arming facilities with brownfield IoT technologies for more IoT connectivity is a transformation process that can be seen from several different angles.

Retrofitting

Wolfgang Thieme, Chief Product Officer at BTI, enumerates current approaches, the most prominent of which is outfitting existing infrastructure with smart sensors to collect data on the shop floor. In this scenario, an IoT gateway aggregates data from remote sensors and communicates the data to the cloud. Retrofitting legacy assets—including assets that have no history of prior sensor capabilities—with current IoT sensors is one step towards becoming IoT-ready. 

Using converters

Another approach towards full connectivity is to bring IoT to the programmable logic controllers (PLCs) that manage and supervise existing automation systems. Operating in a local environment without the ability to communicate with “the outside world”, the PLCs process, not retain, huge amounts of production data that can be brought to the cloud for analysis. Recommended here is the use of a converter that extracts sensor data from the PLCs using automation-specific protocols, and further communicates the data with the help of wireless IoT connectivity. This is a non-invasive approach whereby the converter acts as an IoT edge node transmitting the data over long distances to an IoT gateway. 

Substituting remote I/O modules

A third approach is to substitute remote I/O modules with IoT-ready ones. Thanks to cloud services and wireless technologies, remote management today is distributed across wide areas and can even have a global span. IoT-ready remote I/O modules can close the gap between the edge and the cloud by passing data from the edge directly to a variety of cloud platforms via MQTT and RESTful APIs. The IoT-ready I/O modules are robust, suited for outdoor applications, and equipped with wide-area communication capabilities. 

Introducing IoT DCP

Yet another solution would be to introduce an IoT device computing platform (IoT DCP). This is a scalable software platform that is co-located with legacy devices. It supports protocol drivers such as BACnet, Modbus or LonWorks. Also, it uses a transport layer security (TLS) protocol to establish a secure connection to the cloud data collection service. 

These possibilities can be used in combination or separately to create a viable and cost-effective solution.

Industry Insights

The potentials inherent in brownfield development are not yet fully untapped. Advancements can be moving at a much quicker pace. Many industrial manufacturers prefer to go entirely greenfield as the attraction of starting from scratch also means no predefined parameters and no dealing with past development efforts. Brownfield developers are constrained by hardware, software, and design decisions that put a strain on their own conceptual work. Non-invasive incremental development is popular among industrial manufacturers as it offsets the need for radical change while still offering a point of entry into the world of digital transformation.

Another motivation for manufacturers is that they do not have the technical know-how to design and build connected ecosystems. Nor are they sufficiently familiar with related questions such as that of security, to name one example. Remaining competitive by setting the ground for the smart factory while opting for minimally invasive solutions is a fine balancing act. When it comes to brownfield development, manufacturers are best at home with a service that offers ease of use and reliability while retaining the integrity of the original product design.

Reswarm: Managing the Brownfield

Reswarm is an IoT platform that facilitates brownfield IoT development and supports the coexistence of different devices within highly heterogeneous environments. The platform is flexible and adaptable, allowing the connection of components at different levels across brownfield IoT technologies. Reswarm has built-in infrastructure for custom app development, an array of integrated development tools, cloud services, and APIs. Developers can now focus on the essentials, that is, on their app creation and device management efforts.

Adding devices step by step

The IoT development platform enables seamless transition into the world of connected devices. There is no disruption to anticipate: you can focus on the development work without having to consider production downtime. Tests can be run in the platform’s test environment until the finalization of a fully customized migration strategy. Devices can be added on a step-by-step basis. Once ready to roll out, the scalability of the platform allows you to experiment on devices using open-source technologies. You can upscale when needed, eventually incorporating your entire fleet of devices into the swarm.  

Platform collaboration

Collaborative and community-building features enable developers to share their findings with other users or external partners. Developers can collect ideas, or, in the case of large enterprises, use the platform internally across the entire company. The one-platform-for-all model generates tremendous value in terms of accumulated human capital. Developers can write apps, move them between layers, mine for insights, share, and bring more value back to the platform. This user-centric, service-oriented infrastructure gives developers access to cross-vendor and company-wide know-how, thus amplifying creative potential.

Holistic brownfield development

Transitioning to the greenfield means incurring tremendous costs and suffering production downtime. Instead, legacy devices and old architectures can be made IoT-ready thanks to an open-ended, facilitator perspective on IoT development. A big-picture, holistic approach to the brownfield can be achieved with an IoT platform for device management and app development. The platform establishes connectivity to legacy devices, handles device management, and can shift apps and functions across the network. And once in the world of IoT, you are much better equipped to generate value out of data. You speed up decision-making, streamline processes and boost efficiency. And of course, you get ready to face many more entirely different challenges.

To find out how Reswarm works, sign up and connect your first five IoT devices for free here


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