IoT Channel Chronicles: Avid Solutions Wants To Help Manufacturers Quickly -- And Safely -- Connect Their Systems To The Network

The Smarts Behind Smart Manufacturing

Avid Solutions isn't your typical IT solution provider – in fact, the company prides itself on instead focusing on industrial control systems, which are the operational technology that make up a plant floor.

The company has traditionally offered products and services from industrial-focused companies, like Siemens Programmable Logic Controllers, or Rockwell Software. And now, as more companies start to connect their manufacturing products to the network to improve efficiency and track real-time data flow, Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Avid Solutions is finding new educational opportunities around industrial IoT – and what that means for security.

"We're really establishing and setting the stage for our customers to leverage us once the market starts to mature," said Jeff Miller, chief technologist of smart manufacturing. Following are excerpts from CRN's conversation with Miller about the opportunities and challenges in the OT channel.

Where is the convergence of IT and OT and what role IoT is playing in this convergence?

For the industry as a whole, IT teams were initially shocked when they realized what risk that industrial control systems had in terms of their network infrastructure. They didn't understand how sophisticated and massive these systems were, and that they were all tied to business networks. Now they need to focus on them due to security concerns and the fact that these systems are connected to the outside world.

We're still seeing a lack of perspective from an IT point of view on what it means to operate in the manufacturing space. There needs to be better education about what OT means in terms of security. IT is heavily involved in the periphery of making sure these systems are becoming safe, so this convergence between IT and OT is natural.

What's an example of how IT and OT are different from a solution provider perspective?

If it takes three seconds longer to load a Microsoft application in the IT world; an enterprise or IT client would be OK with that, it's not a big deal. But in the manufacturing space, three seconds is basically a measure for money. Three seconds would be considered unacceptable because the industrial control systems are real-time systems. They cannot tolerate any delay in how they communicate.

The other challenge is the level of uptime that is acceptable and required from an industrial control system. While IT can still function with downtime, OT isn't extremely tolerable when it comes to downtime – because time equals money.

Where do you fit in in bridging that gap between IT and OT?

A lot of companies rely on us to be the liaison between IT and OT. We understand both sides, and that's the bridge that we provide. We understand the environments, and can communicate on both sides, like an interpreter. The companies that are best in class have people on staff who can understand both sides of the fence.

Who do you partner with and how are you choosing the vendors you partner with?

We partner with Rockwell Automation, Schneider Electric and Honeywell, but we also work with other vendors from the operational technology side as well. Each of those three companies has an IT side of the business, as well as OT. Each one is fluent in both sides of the technology.

On the other side of the fence, we're seeing potential other partnerships with Software-as-a-Service companies, like Splunk.

How are you building out Avid Solutions' IoT practice and in-house skills?

I came aboard to build a team for Avid Solutions focused on MES [manufactuing execution systems ], IT solutions, and cybersecurity as the market matured. We are actively engaged in the community in educating our customers on how IoT may play within their IT-OT infrastructure. Right now, it's more of an educational process with customers and getting our footprint established internally. We've talked with IBM about Watson capabilities and machine learning, and are training our employees internally about machine learning, as well as staying current on cloud-based solutions like Predix, ThingWorx and BlueMix. We're really establishing and setting the stage for our customers to leverage us once the market starts to mature.

What kind of interest in IoT are you seeing from customers? Particularly operational technology customers?

The challenge is that companies don't understand IoT in general. We've had webcasts to build a narrative on what can be done with IoT today. There are some companies who are forward looking and ... who have road maps in place to take advantage of IoT technologies.

Meanwhile, these concepts are challenging to pitch at the OT level. You have to jump outside of the manufacturing floor and hit the C-level or senior executive level. All the technology is available right now, but you have to have the upper level rank's attention in order to get the funding for a project.