Today, many industrial organizations face a common question when considering how to adopt new technology, “To be successful, what is the best way to install, manage, monitor and maintain technology?” which quickly leads to the related question, “If I embrace new technology, should the information technology (IT) or operations technology (OT) function be responsible for it?” And finally, “Do we have the knowledge and expertise to do so?”
These questions apply to new or existing technology. In the case of edge computing, i.e., deploying computing platforms to industrial equipment on the plant floor or in geographically remote, understaffed locations, presents additional complexity to maintain these systems. These are not the immaculate, well-lit data centers and server farms of the traditional computing infrastructure. Instead, most edge locations are demanding settings such as a manufacturing shop floor, an oil refinery or a remote, field-based drilling operation.
The promise of edge computing is to bring computing power to where it is needed to solve challenges of bandwidth, data latency and downtime. It also offers end users flexibility to run multiple software workloads concurrently through virtualization, thereby reducing costs and improving efficiency. Industrial organizations are therefore turning to managed services from vendors as a practical solution to solve limited staffing and adding extra assurance to their investment.
Who owns the edge?
Industrial companies cannot tolerate suboptimal performance or downtime —no matter how brief these periods may be. Any outage or failure introduces unacceptable business risk and threatens the company’s ability to keep manufacturing lines running, utilities and pipelines operating and customers happy. Their success at the edge is predicated on a reliable edge computing infrastructure that does not fail.
The traditional approach of having IT take responsibility for all network systems and infrastructure is not always ideal in edge environments due to cost and resources issues that may arise. On the other hand, technology and systems at the edge have been the domain of operations teams and operational technology.
Companies are looking to tighten the IT-OT gap by selecting technologies that are more OT friendly — interoperable and easily managed by OT. This approach has eased demands on both IT and OT professionals where organizations are constrained for resources and face challenges in relation to maintenance time and skillsets.
COVID-19 has introduced additional pressure, as manufacturers and industrial companies look to monitor critical systems remotely to maintain uptime and business performance for operational resiliency. This combination of uptime, limited skillset and resources issues has led to more organizations outsourcing maintenance and monitoring to the vendor through managed services.
Managed services for edge performance
Outsourcing edge performance to the system vendor provides a range of advantages related to monitoring, patching, maintenance, upgrades and more. This way, teams with specialized expertise support edge platforms. Edge vendors can field dedicated experts in areas such as virtualization, hardware, networking and application and database management, which fills end user gaps in expertise and skillsets.
Outsourcing managed services takes the responsibility away from IT and OT teams, which enables them to focus on what they do best: ensuring critical industrial systems and infrastructure are running at peak efficiency.
Using managed services from vendors offers expertise and scale that many industrial companies do not have on their own. It also enables documentation of governance and compliance procedures from an audit standpoint, where companies must validate how systems are maintained, patched and updated to secure data and processes.
For edge platforms already providing “five nines” (99.999%) performance, managed services provide the extra assurance of no downtime. In this respect, many end users view managed services as an investment in process uptime.
“Follow-the-sun” support teams based in key geographies around the world enable 24×7 monitoring. Action can be taken before a small issue becomes a larger one. Teams monitor data and alerts in hundreds of performance categories to find the rare needle in the haystack indicator. Some alerts are obvious — actual failures or outages — yet some are not. For example, monitoring elements such as CPU performance can avoid a domino effect of applications and systems degradation. Edge computing services teams quickly investigate issues, find the cause and take the right steps to address it, without burdening the company’s IT or OT teams.
After such a turbulent year, many companies in the industrial sector may be looking for new ways to empower remote teams and free IT and OT staff to focus on their core responsibilities. Partnering with edge vendors and outsourcing managed services may now be the right model to take advantage of the advantages these companies are looking for.
Ryan Smith is director of solution services at Stratus Technologies.
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