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C-Suite Insight: What Is the Industrial Edge?


As featured in Acceleration Economy Network

What is the Industrial Edge? This is a topic that is heavily debated in techno circles outside of the industrial domain.

Schneider Electric describes the industrial edge as, “the places where digitized industrial assets and human operators are located.”

Siemens describes it as, “an open, ready-to-use Edge computing platform consisting of Edge devices, Edge apps, Edge connectivity, and an application and device management infrastructure.” 

What is the industrial edge? What makes it different?

Per the edge computing framework neXt Curve has proposed in the Cutting Edge, the industrial edge is the environment where we see the operations of a business take place. These operations involve a broad range of process and discrete manufacturing, logistics, transportation, distribution, and all the other elements that make up supply chains. It can also involve after-sales field service, field sales, and in some industries such as retail, marketing, and advertisement.

One of the things that is quite different about the industrial edge is the way that systems have been traditionally architected versus what IT organizations might be familiar with in their data centers and campus networks. When you venture into the OT world you will inevitably hear about Level 2, Level 3, etc. when they talk about on industrial control systems, more often than not, they are talking about the Purdue Enterprise Reference Architecture (PERA). This reference model was developed by the Purdue University Consortium for Computer Integrated Manufacturing back in the 1990s and has since served as the foundation by which industrial systems have been designed and implemented.

One of the key features of the Purdue model is its take on security architecture. It boils down to multi-layered zoning of an operating environment using firewalls, DMZs, physical separation, and other methods. The idea is to create what is a virtually and/or physically air-gapped network environment. The essence of air-gapping is to isolate systems in a network from the Internet, and from each other in some instances and implementations.

Why will the industrial edge matter to my organization in the future?

Understanding the modern legacy of the industrial edge will be very important for enterprises in industrial as well as non-industrial sectors. Why? The industrial folks have a lot of experience with edge architectures and how to secure them despite the buzz about industrial environments have security problems. New technologies coming from the IT universe like cloud computing are constantly bombarding the OT world as part of this movement to converged IT with OT. Unfortunately, introducing these new IT technologies and deployment models into the OT world causes as many security issues as it may promise benefits. The question becomes, what do you compromise security for? Flexibility? Interoperability? Connecting things up in the cloud? For what purpose? 

While there are some pundits who believe that the Purdue model is becoming irrelevant thanks to cloud computing, the basic principles of PERA are sound. It is still relevant and will be modernized to accommodate the benefits of new technologies. Inflexible? Maybe. But that might just be the price your architecture has to pay for security.   

If anything, as cloud computing moves toward the edge, it is ”cloud” that needs to adjust to new realities at the edge. There are many lessons that the cloud folks might be able to learn from the industrial OT folks about the edge. 

These lessons will be important because non-industrial enterprises will inevitably be borrowing from the OT playbook and the Purdue model in building out their edge infrastructures and environments. The question will be how do you apply PERA in a smart home or home automation system to protect a customer’s privacy and secure their personal spaces both physical and digital, not how do you use IT to undo PERA.

Key takeaway for the C-Suite

Does everything on the edge, whether it is data, workloads, or applications, need to and will go up to the public cloud? No. This is an answer that the C-Suite should start to get comfortable with. It does run against the grain of digital thinking of the last decade, but edge is really where the action is. It is where the data is. This is something OT folks have known for a long time. There is no reason to reinvent or break a wheel that has merits today. 

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