Joanne Tanner and Tobias Cleaver-Ross discuss the benefits and challenges of cloud computing and collaboration in the chemical and process industries
WE ALL know that the chemical and process industries constantly adapt to and thrive on new technology, and cloud computing is no exception. The cloud provides a wealth of powerful computing and collaboration opportunities, and is ideal for providing standardised functionality to multiple users in multiple locations. Although the chemical industries are at an early stage in the adoption and use of cloud computing, companies are increasingly recognising that the cloud provides direct and timely access to data, and can provide operational efficiency and business advantages.
Given this apparent enthusiasm for the cloud, there is also an element of “keeping up” to be considered. Many companies see the move to the cloud as an opportunity to adopt software that will be externally maintained and automatically upgraded as global business connections and processes evolve and change. Conversely, those who choose not to embrace the cloud may find their IT options and competitive advantage become increasingly limited over time. New software packages will increasingly be written ideally or only for the cloud, and if a company has not created a cloud-friendly or cloud-relevant IT environment, they won’t be able to use them effectively. Their ability to contain costs and collaborate effectively with their suppliers, customers and business partners will suffer, and those companies will be left behind.
Despite its nebulous name, the cloud is essentially just the internet. Cloud computing, therefore, is the use of internet-based IT and computing capabilities, including hardware, software and services. The goal of cloud computing is for clients to be able to access and benefit from cloud-based resources as and when they need them, while minimising cost. Therefore, cloud computing capabilities are typically hosted and managed by a third party and provided on demand, so the client only pays when they need to use a product. Cloud clients also bear minimal cost of infrastructure and upkeep, in contrast with traditional on-site, server-based IT systems. The majority of the programming and maintenance is outsourced to the cloud host, meaning the client can focus on their core business and expertise. Of course, we are still at a point where technologies and humans must be allied, and internal personnel with sufficient knowledge and skills to design and direct the cloud-based services will be required, but the cost and manpower required are significantly less than those required for the equivalent in-house and on-site IT services.
An alternative to internet-based cloud computing is to have a private cloud, hosted within a company’s private data centre and accessible only via the company’s IT network. Private cloud services can be supported by internal resources, or by a third party that has been given the required access to the private cloud. The choice between publicly- and privately-hosted cloud services is naturally a trade-off. A private cloud hosted in a company’s data centre is a lower security risk and may make it easier to meet regulatory or client requirements. However, this solution requires internal resources to build and maintain. A public cloud can be higher risk, but is typically more flexible and scalable, and allows external management and resources to be leveraged more effectively and efficiently. To mitigate risk, companies may need or choose to have separate private and third-party clouds for access and services requiring different confidentiality, security and legislative requirements.
The cloud can also be used as an effective means of location-agnostic collaboration for sharing and accessing documentation and resources in a common and familiar work environment. There are also clear benefits for distributed, remote and hybrid workforces. Teams can remotely access all the necessary dashboards, files and software, and work together to achieve their shared goals without being together physically. Contractors and other external parties can access documents, and participate and contribute more easily.
A great example of industry-specific cloud collaboration would be conducting a virtual factory acceptance test (FAT). All participants collaborate independently of location in a virtual engineering and testing environment, meaning software, hardware and personnel no longer need to travel to a single staging location, saving carbon footprint, cost, and mitigating and managing risk and schedule. More operators can be involved, which improves adoption rates and startup times upon implementation, and there are also efficiencies to be realised with regards to sharing and simultaneous editing of documentation. Another example could be collaboration for design and simulation development and updates, where internal and external contributors in distributed locations could work together simultaneously on a single process design without having to manage the workflow to export and share versions for offline development.
Cloud collaboration streamlines organisational workflows, improves communication and participation, enables automated version control and change management, and promotes real-time workflows and documentation updates. Cloud collaboration tools and features include phone systems, video conferencing, group chat and instant messaging, automated meeting transcription, web-based repository services, screen sharing, documentation sharing and joint editing, and project management tools.
The cloud is made up of virtual resources. Virtual desktop instances, software, applications and data storage are hosted on remotely-accessible hardware. Data is processed through switches and routers and delivered to the client via their device. Cloud architecture is very simple. There are just two parts – the front end and the back end – which are connected via the internet (or intranet in the case of a private cloud) to enable access and data flow between them (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: General cloud architecture
The back end is the cloud itself, consisting of the remote servers and other hardware required for the storage, operation and delivery of the cloud-based data, software and services. The back end hosts and enables access to the client applications, provides command handling and execution services, and also includes dynamic resource management and security software.
The front end connects the client to the cloud, and consists of everything the client interacts with. This includes the user interfaces such as web-based browsers and apps, custom dashboards, and dedicated software programs and packages. The devices used by the client to access the virtual resources hosted in the cloud are also part of the front end. In cloud architecture, client devices are portals or access terminals only. They are usually low-spec machines or portable devices, similar to operator workstations, that have little or no inherent functionality or computing power.
Companies can choose from among a number of options when it comes to what type and how much of their data is stored and accessible via the cloud. A company can still take advantage of cloud-based data analytics while maintaining their data collection, storage and access protocols and security. You could copy or store all your data in the cloud, but it’s typically not necessary. For example, data can be stored in the company data centre and accessed in near real-time via browser-based apps and dashboards running in the cloud. Alternately, remotely- generated and IIoT data could be routed directly to the cloud to enable real-time, multi-site analytics. Cloud-based data can also be supplemented by historical process data and historical or real-time cloud-based enterprise data.
The classic and comfortable layered control system architecture can be largely maintained when implementing cloud-based analytics and services (see Figure 2). Operations technology (OT) hardware, data and networks are still segregated on the lower levels. Local cloud computing can be implemented at plant level to provide advanced data analytics to improve product quality, asset monitoring, production and scheduling, and utility management, without affecting basic process control and safety systems. At the higher network architecture levels, cloud computing can improve connectivity in traditionally siloed companies and processing plants, maintaining necessary security and separation while removing barriers and significantly improving internal collaboration and coordination.