Protocol Translation: Why One-Box Connectivity Is Better than Two

One box, two box, gray box, blue box. Regardless of the form, the function of protocol translation is to connect disparate devices so they can communicate with each other.

The simple, most impactful way to do this is to add a multi-protocol gateway so that your devices easily interface with your automation control networks.

Sounds simple enough and, in a way, it is. But a high-performance, fully configurable gateway is about much more than closing the gap between a wide variety of devices (including) legacy – it’s about enabling you to do all that you want and need to do to ensure the comfort and safety of your buildings and the people that come into it.

In the not too distant past, connectivity involved physically wiring devices using such things as optical fiber, cables, boxes, and panels. Technological advancements, including wi-fi, Bluetooth, and IoT gateways, however, have transformed connectivity to enable faster, better connections and interoperability so you can successfully mix-and-match dissimilar devices.

Still, even with these advances, many solutions rely on old ways of thinking and doing; namely, making you invest in additional gateway devices, robbing dollars from your budget and time from your team, not to mention taking up much-needed physical space and potentially opening up additional pathways for cyberhackers.

Instead, there’s a more economical and logical option: the one-box solution. The one-box solution simplifies and streamlines protocol translation. This is where MSA FieldServer with FieldSafe comes in with its many distinct advantages over a two-box offering.

Fast, Easy Installation

Preloaded with drivers and ready to support hundreds, even thousands, of data points, MSA FieldServer’s one-box solution provides instant deployment. It is  a “get it done and get it done now” solution. For example, if you want a VPN solution, MSA FieldServer makes it as simple as switching it on to get it up and running.

Two-box solutions, on the other hand, require a box to connect to the cloud, another box to connect to VPN, and so on and so on. Consider that a two-box solution means that the cost of each device is taking a big bite out of your budget, it also takes longer for installation and setup.

Upgrade Features – Without Replacing Hardware

MSA FieldServer is a nimble device that gives you remarkable flexibility. With a single piece of hardware, you can add the features quickly and easily.

Let’s assume you want to log data to the cloud. No problem. The feature can be turned on with a switch. If you have a 70 degree temperature set in the left corner of the boiler and want to change it, guess what? No problem. The change can be made in near real-time. In fact, the beauty of the MSA FieldServer one-box solution is that features can be added, and profiles can be updated, changed, or reconfigured instantaneously – and all on a single device.

Smaller Footprint

Space is always at a premium, especially when you need a cabinet to house a piece of equipment. Fortunately, the MSA FieldServer is only about the size of a deck of cards. You can easily mount it on a DIN rail to make smart use of your existing space and equipment racks.

State-of-the-Art Security

MSA’s one-box solution also comes equipped with MSA FieldSafe, a feature that ensures device security through such exacting security measures as self-signed certificates and robust user/password management.

The one-box MSA FieldServer with FieldSafe takes a multi-layered approach to security to secure the device, your connections, and your data. It works by securing cloud connectivity through a dedicated port, while it also allows your data to move seamlessly across disparate subnets. And, it ensures compliance with the most current and stringent IoT safety standards in the world.

One Box, One Solution

Achieving connectivity with a one-box solution gives you incredible processing power as well as a cost-effective, secure interface so you can do anything and everything you need to – without the need for multiples pieces of equipment.

Even better is the fact that MSA FieldServer is continually evolving to keep up with the connectivity revolution. Our newest addition to the MSA FieldServer suite features two ethernet ports. Not only does this speed things up in the background, it provides updated cybersecurity protection, making your one-box solution the solution that keeps up with cybercriminals.

Contact us using the form below to learn more about MSA’s proven one-box solutions that use your existing devices and applications without big, expensive add-ons.

How (and Why) to Secure Your Cloud Interface with OpenVPN

Don’t let the name fool you. OpenVPN is anything but.

OpenVPN is the name of an award-winning VPN solution. OpenVPN is a virtual private network system that implements techniques to create secure point-to-point or site-to-site connections in routed or bridged configurations and remote access facilities. It implements both client and server applications and has excellent applications for the MSA FieldServer.

In this fifth and final part of our third-party integration series, we’ll answer questions about OpenVPN, including: What are the benefits? How does it work with MSA FieldServer? Does it help protect against hackers? Will it complicate or enhance connectivity and productivity?

BENEFITS OF OPENVPN

According to the creators of OpenVPN, thousands of organizations, including Google, Amazon, and Disney are protected on-site, in the cloud, and in the field with VPNs for 4 key reasons:1

  1. Limited access to the outside: By their very nature, virtual private networks (VPNs) limit access to public networks, thereby decreasing the chance of a cyberattack.
  2. Improved productivity: Because VPNs allow for remote access to systems, devices, and components, employees can do more and produce more – regardless of what time it is or where they’re located in relation to the devices.
  3. Better data protection: Every organization has data that is attractive to cyberthieves. VPNs leverage encryption technologies to create more secure connections and keep data hidden from unauthorized users.
  4. Budget-friendly security: VPNs are highly conductive to upgrades and updates to help you keep up with, and stay ahead of, hackers.

HOW OPENVPN WORKS WITH THIRD-PARTY INTEGRATION

As you can tell, VPN is a very logical way to securely connect and access networks and devices. MSA FieldServer leverages OpenVPN and has been developed specifically to deliver secure, reliable connectivity.

With 140+ communication protocols, MSA FieldServer lets you connect a wide variety of disparate devices, allowing for full and secure communication in the Cloud. Using only the software on your computer, MSA FieldServer lets you safely, securely, and remotely access any connected device and:

  • Monitor and maintain devices
  • Perform diagnostics and troubleshooting
  • Reprogram or reconfigure devices
  • Update firmware

WHY VPN IS MORE SECURE

According to research, 65% of cyberattacks are made toward small- to medium-size businesses with energy organizations, educational institutions, and healthcare systems following high on the most-attacked spectrum.2

So, how secure is a VPN? MSA FieldServer with OpenVPN delivers proven, penetration-tested security. In fact, our advance OpenVPN interface is an encrypted, authenticated, and secure tunnel that lets you connect from your local laptop or mobile device to the FieldServer, which then acts as a proxy so you can access any of your connected devices from anywhere in the world.

More importantly, our OpenVPN technology helps protect your business processes, equipment, data, and facilities from hackers and threats. Because it operates on both ends of the internet tunnel, supporting unique IP addresses at each endpoint, you can be assured of robust and reliable data security. However, because no device or protocol can guarantee 100 percent protection from cyberattacks, our solution also offers cloud alarming by email or text, alerting you at the first sign of a threat.

In addition, MSA engineers are constantly evaluating, testing, and upgrading our OpenVPN technology to fix bugs, protect against hackers, and prevent intrusion.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THIRD-PARTY INTEGRATION

We’ve covered a lot in this five-part series on third-party integration. Here are some quick links to help you catch up or revisit any or all of the posts in this series:

  • Read Part 1: Overview here.
  • Read Part 2: Notifications here.
  • Read Part 3: Remote Device Management (RDM) here.
  • Read Part 4: Data Visualization here.

And, as always, if you need help integrating your devices and moving to secure, reliable, cloud-based communication, please contact us using the form below.

References:

1 OpenVPN.net. (n.d.). 4 ways your business can benefit from a VPN. https://openvpn.net/4-ways-your-business-can-benefit-from-a-vpn/

2 CybintSolutions.com. (2018, Nov. 29). 4 industries likely to get hacked. https://www.cybintsolutions.com/industries-likely-to-get-hacked/

Is Data Visualization Really That Important?

Research shows that our brains are so good at processing visual information that the brain can make sense of even briefly presented images.1 In fact, human beings have an inherent aptitude to use visual data to discover trends, identify anomalies, and process concepts.2

It makes sense, then, in this technological age that data visualization is not only an emerging trend but also an imperative. In this post, our fourth in the MSA FieldServer series about third-party integration, we’ll be talking about data visualization. More importantly, we’ll talk about why seeing data in graphical format makes it easier to process information, which leads to better decision making for your smart and automated buildings and facilities.

WHY DATA VISUALIZATION MATTERS

Like information shared through dialogue, data is only good if it can be synthesized, integrated, interpreted, understood, and disseminated. Fortunately, technology is enabling just about every industry to translate complex data sets. Visual data provides discoverable insights that let you accomplish a wide array of tasks and goals in ways that are timelier and more accurate.

A smart building manager has dozens, if not hundreds, of touchpoints each day to keep systems operating as they should. In the old days, people would need to be dispatched to read meters, check temperatures, monitor pressures, and the like.

Today, however, data visualization enables these checks to be performed remotely – and with fewer resources. More importantly, it results in what we like to call “quick and conscientious decision making.”

DATA SOURCES: THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE ESSENTIAL

Within supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, there are literally hundreds of bits of data available relative to monitoring and controlling field devices at local and remote sites.

Here’s a look at data sources from a three-pronged perspective: the good, the bad, and the essential.

The Good: Data is only as good as its source. Your devices have plenty of good data; however, without some way to extract and translate it, it’s essentially locked inside the machine.

The Bad: If data is available but doesn’t make sense or isn’t quick and easy to understand the unfortunate fact is that it won’t be very useful. Unlocked but confusing or unclear data is an opportunity lost for important decision making.

The Essential: Essential data relies on relevant data presented in a way that makes sense and, for most of us, that means visually. Visual data presents a clear story that highlights critical information, ranging from exact numbers to comparisons and percentages to trends over time.

DATA TYPES, RETRIEVAL & TRANSLATION

Automation systems have numerous sources of data essentially floating around inside just waiting to be seen. Through a profile that we set for our customers, MSA FieldServer retrieves specific datasets from the machines that are connected to it. A subset of that data is then published to the system where it can be seen locally by authorized users. The data – or a subset of it – also can also be published to the cloud for globally remote access by authorized users.

The average automation systems manager looks at somewhere between 70 and 100 bits of data, though some may need up to 200 bits of data per machine.

Some examples of relevant data for both the MSA FieldServer and the machines and components it connects to include:

  • Temperatures
  • Pressures
  • Firmware updates
  • Serial port connections and disconnections
  • Errors
  • Online/offline

When it comes to visual data, it’s important to understand that starts with a notification from the connected device. The data then gives the decision maker all the information they need to quickly analyze, troubleshoot, diagnose, and prevent or fix issues.

No longer does a boiler manager have to dispatch a worker to check gauges and then wait for the person to come back and report. All the relevant data is available in one place at one time in near real time.

So, what happens when components are added, systems are changed, or some new data point is needed? Well, with MSA FieldServer, it’s a seamless adaptation. The profile is already built, so the addition of a new machine just means that the required data points are brought through and visualized. Again, this means the user gets relevant data automatically (based on the profile) as it becomes available.

MAKING THE MOST OF DATA VISUALIZATION

When it comes to great data visualization, the key is to determine which data points are most necessary. Remember that there are literally hundreds of datasets be machine, so while it’s tempting to ask “everything” the better option is to ask for the most important data. Ask yourself:

  • What data do I really need to see?
  • How often do I need it to see this particular data?
  • Are there any tolerances, limits, or parameters that will make the data more useful?

Again, the goal of data visualization is to help you do the job of keeping machines and systems up and running efficiently and effectively. For example, if you’re in charge of a data system and there are HVAC problems, you’ll want notifications and visual data so you can monitor when things are getting too warm, about to switch off, or in danger of a catastrophic crash.

Data visualization takes the guesswork out of decision making. It gives you what you need to know so you can intervene with preventive maintenance, whether that’s upping pressures, adding fans, or sending service trucks to the location.

SECURITY & EASY CONNECTION

Remember, all data visualization is not equal.

Relevant, visually driven data will provide you with trusted insight and repeatable metrics. MSA FieldServer not only does that, but it is also easy to configurate, as well as quick and simple to use.

MSA FieldServer allows for data to be moved from a device to a local web server and to the cloud. The local web server is embedded in the FieldServer for local visibility so that means all you need to do is connect your laptop to the machine to view the data.

With MSA FieldServer, the cloud-based data is visualized by a dashboard, pulled via .csv or JSON format or sent to a third-party application via standard connectors. That means you and any other key stakeholders can see the data anytime, anywhere, from locations in the U.S. Germany, or China.

Further, because MSA FieldServer is based on Amazon Web Services (AMS), we’re able to provide a clear visual hierarchy along with reliable – and scalable – connectivity that makes your work easier, faster, and more effective.

If you want to learn more about how MSA FieldServer provides data that’s relevant, timely, and accessible, contact us via the form below.

And don’t forget to check back for our fifth and final post in this series on VPN. If you missed all or part of the series, you still have time to catch up:

  • Read Part 1: Overview here.
  • Read Part 2: Notifications here.
  • Read Part 3: Remote Device Management (RDM) here.
References:
  1. MIT News, In the blink of an eye, https://news.mit.edu/2014/in-the-blink-of-an-eye-0116
  2. Wharton Magazine, Making data visualization more accessible, https://magazine.wharton.upenn.edu/digital/making-data-visualization-more-accessible/
How Remote Device Management Does More Than Save Time and Money

(It does that, too.)

Tractor beams, deflector shields, and push-button “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” Although these things still live in the world of science fiction, some Star Trek-inspired technologies are here, and here to stay.

Among them? MSA FieldServer’s own remote device management (RDM) capabilities. While we’ve covered the topic of remote access before, we talked about it as it relates to helping workers do their job.

In this post, we’ll be talking about RDM in relation to third-party integration. To catch up on our third-party integration series, read Part 1: Overview here and Part 2: Notifications here.

REMOTE DEVICE MANAGEMENT FOR SMART ENVIRONMENTS

In today’s world, there are literally thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of connected devices. At its core, RDM is the ability to access, control, or monitor a system’s components or devices from just about anywhere.

RDM is a great example of living in a world where sci-fi inventions occasionally come to life because this capability satisfies one of our greatest modern-day needs: instant gratification.

Like our other MSA FieldServer capabilities, RDM is about giving our customers the power to resolve issues right here, right now.

In our last post, we touched on RDM and a few of the many ways it can support another important MSA FieldServer feature, notifications. So, in this post, we’re going to look specifically at how RDM helps keep everything in correct working order.

WHY REMOTE DEVICE MANAGEMENT MAKES SENSE

Perhaps the biggest payoff of RDM is that it allows for access to data, diagnostics, and controls from any place, any time. Add in ease, flexibility, increased productivity, improved time savings, and greater cost effectiveness, and it’s easy to understand why RDM is a popular and growing feature for operations and facilities professionals.

Here are just a few of the many functions RDM offers:

  • Access and permissions management
  • Alarms, alerts, and other relevant notifications
  • Configuration management
  • Data collection and dissemination
  • Deployment and updates for firmware
  • Diagnostics and troubleshooting
  • Remote back-end access
  • Status checks and real-time monitoring

REWARDS & BENEFITS OF RDM

Of course, remote device management doesn’t just happen by itself. There has to be something that acts as a bridge between the remote manager and the device; namely software, a cloud-based network, and corresponding protocols to facilitate secure connectivity and communication.

Specifically, MSA FieldServer’s remote device management capabilities offer organizations and their smart environments these key benefits:

  • A centralized, single point of contact
  • Convenient, secure, and comprehensive device management from anywhere, anytime
  • High reliability to maximize system performance and uptime
  • Reduced operating, maintenance, and service call costs

Most industrial and building automation systems are multi-device environments requiring third-party integration. This makes setting up and managing the many and varying devices infinitely more complex. While most RDM solutions require a two-box solution, MSA FieldServer doesn’t. Our one-box solution is ready to go and ready to connect all your disparate devices – no expensive add-ons needed.

THE PRACTICAL SIDE: WHAT RMD CAN DO

Automation systems have literally transformed the way smart facilities are run, making it possible to provide building occupants with more of the futuristic-type conveniences they demand. Keeping up with such demand and keeping all systems go, however, would be nearly impossible were it not for RDM.

Here’s a look at the primary ways remote device management can assist.

VPN (Virtual Private Network): With VPN, designated members from your service department or provider or authorized users from within your organization can access a wide variety of devices remotely, thanks to the installation of proprietary software on a desktop PC or laptop device. VPN via the cloud with MSA FieldServer gives these users the ability to connect instantaneously and remotely to any device, and do anything they would otherwise do if the device was sitting next to them – including reprogramming or changing setpoints. Not only does RDM with VPN reduce the time it takes to resolve issues, it allows other authorized users to jump in and provide assistance or expert support without delay. It’s important to note that any device changes can be made safely and securely through VPN.

Proxy Tunnel: Although sometimes confused with VPN, a proxy tunnel is actually a gateway that allows a user remote access to a web page on a device. With MSA FieldServer, as long as the ethernet device is connected to the same subnet, it can be viewed remotely via the SMC Cloud. Like VPN, this reduces the time it takes to diagnose and resolve issues, as well as provides access to other authorized users, as required.

Notifications: Alerts, alarms, updates, reminders, and other notifications are especially helpful when managing multi-device automation and smart systems. RDM complements this function by allowing the user to respond to the notification in whatever manner is appropriate, including changing configurations or updating firmware.

Access to Remote Device Data: When it comes to automated systems and decision making, data is everything. Thanks to RDM, users can have immediate access to critical data. Even better, MSA FieldServer allow data to be called up visually, whether that’s through a dashboard or in a “.csv” or “JSON” format.

Cloud Tunnel/System View: Because data is often best viewed in a graphical format, RDM gives MSA FieldServer customers the option of System View. System View allows them to log in to an embedded web page on the MSA FieldServer to see a visual representation of their data – data that includes status checks, as well as appropriate changing of data points, such as adjusting a temperature setup.

Third-Party Application Access: RDM is nothing without the ability to securely access data. With MSA FieldServer, we move the data from the customer to the SMC Cloud, enabling private access to all the data.

Time will tell if more sci-fi-inspired innovations make their way into our world (no doubt, at least a few will). Until then, we’re continuing our quest to develop best-in-class solutions to help make smart automation faster, easier, and more cost effective.

Contact us below to learn more. Then, keep coming back here for our continuing series on third-party integration. Up next? Data visualization.

How Notifications Can Transform Automation for the Better

This is Part 2 of our multi-part series on Third-Party Integration. Read Part 1 here.

Nice to know. Need to know. There was a time when these two things were different and distinct. Each had its purpose. Each had its place.

No longer.

Push, pull, as-needed, or on-demand, the way information is deployed has evolved, thanks to shifts in communication and advances in technologies. Now, “knowing” means having access to all types of data points and relevant information in an instant.

For industrial automation and building control, this means staying connected and always on with the help of a smartly engineered notification system.

WHAT NOTIFICATIONS ARE

By definition, notifications are:

no·ti·fi·ca·tions

/ˌnōdəfəˈkāSH(ə)n/

noun

  1. written intelligence designed to inform someone about something of significance

In other words, notifications let the people who need to know (end users) get the information (data points) they want/should/must know without prompting.

Even better is when those notifications are customized to the specifications of the end user, as they are with the MSA FieldServer™ suite of automation gateway products. MSA FieldServer notifications are yet another way we’re helping corporate, industrial, educational, medical and other facilities save valuable time and money.

HOW NOTIFICATIONS WORK

As you might expect, MSA FieldServer notifications operate on a trigger system. Something happens that causes a notification to be sent in the form of an alert, an alarm, or similar output.

Basically, these triggers are data points relevant to, and selected by, the end user based on the environment, equipment, and desired outcome. Triggers can range from an alarm about a component that’s overheating to a heads-up alert about an off-calibration issue.

Once the conditions that trigger a notification are selected and the trigger is activated, notifications are then deployed from the cloud, and pushed to the end user by SMS or email. Then the recipient can log in to the cloud and take the necessary actions – remotely – to diagnose or resolve the issue, including changing set points that have reached a pre-determined threshold.

For example, let’s say you’d like to know when a certain automation device is drawing much more current than it should. Instead of physically inspecting and monitoring these devices at regular intervals (or, worse, not doing anything at all), you log on to MSA FieldServer’s web-based interface and select your desired data points; in this instance, currency metrics.

Voila, you’re done! No more monitoring by you, no unnecessary service calls, and no worrying to keep you up at night.

If and when the device does experience an anomaly that matches the conditions you selected, rest assured that MSA FieldServer will send an email and/or text message alerting you to the issue. From there, you can determine the appropriate next step, be it reconfiguring, recalibrating, or replacing the device.

LEVERAGING THE CLOUD

Cloud capabilities are key to reaping the benefits of a remote connectivity solution like the MSA FieldServer; namely, a new level of support for your team and your customers.

Our SaaS (software-as-a-service) cloud-based offer is called the SMC Cloud. It works with our entire MSA FieldServer family of IIoT protocol gateways, routers, and explorers. More importantly, it provides secure, remote connectivity, including third-party integration with other cloud-based applications or a mobile device.

Specifically, with the SMC Cloud and the MSA FieldServer, you could choose to receive cloud-based notifications that inform you or other key stakeholders as soon as an event occurs. In addition, the SMC Cloud with the MSA FieldServer can provide other cloud-based connectivity notifications and options, including:

  • Information about the status of the MSA FieldServer or other connected devices
  • Updates to the latest release of the MSA FieldServer’s firmware
  • Remote diagnostics of MSA FieldServer and/or other device connections

WHY NOTIFICATIONS MATTER

Like the smart system itself, MSA FieldServer notifications support the primary goal of keeping costs down and safety up.

Automation systems, and notifications in particular, help facility managers do a better job of maintaining a building for comfort, safety, and convenience.

Notifications also support predictive maintenance by providing relevant analytics about when or if equipment, components, or devices need service. Such advance notifications allow facility managers to optimize the time and method by which they complete routine and scheduled maintenance.

For example, let’s say you’re in charge of a building on a college campus. You receive a MSA FieldServer text notification about a minor issue with the HVAC system that, left unchecked, could lead, in time, to a system failure.

Thanks to the notification, you’re now able to make an informed decision based on the issue, the environment, and the needs of the people using the building. Based on the notification, you determine that the optimal time to schedule HVAC maintenance is on the weekend so there’s less disruption to normal, weekday activities and building usage.

BETTER AUTOMATION

Perhaps the best thing about MSA FieldServer’s relevant and timely notifications is how they promote operational efficiencies.

Here are three types of MSA FieldServer notifications along with their direct operational benefit:

  1. Instant: Resolve issues ASAP to keeping the wheels of the operation turning without delay.
  2. Remote: Troubleshoot and resolve issues without relying on well-intended yet perhaps unqualified personnel who happen to be in proximity to the equipment.
  3. Detailed: Turn data into insights with information that goes beyond the “what” and “when” to the all-important “why.”

LOOKING AHEAD

If this snapshot of FieldServer notifications leaves you wanting to know more, we can help. Contact us to learn more about integrating MSA FieldServer custom notifications into your automation systems to elevate it to new and better levels.

Until then, check back to this blog for a continuation of this series and a deep dive into these related third-party integration topics:

Case Study: Case Controls®
MSA FieldServer™ Remote Monitoring – Case Controls® Says It’s Been Great for Business

Somewhere between Evansville, Indiana, Kapolei, Hawaii, and Hazira, India is a compressed air system alarm, voltage disturbance, or some other anomaly that requires swift and specialized attention.

Enter Case Controls®.

With installations across North America and around the world, troubleshooting, monitoring, and supporting issues is all in a day’s work for this Evansville-based firm that designs, builds, and services world-class products for controlling industrial air compressors and compressed air systems on Allen-Bradley CompactLogix™ and ControlLogix® PLCs and PanelView™ Plus HMIs.

Case supplies and services some of the world’s most well-known – and most depended-upon – industrial organizations. In fact, without Case’s support, some of these compressed air operations could be severely interrupted or even shut down, negatively impacting the production and distribution of essential food, healthcare, paper goods, and other much-needed supplies.

THE CHALLENGE

Though they were already known for providing outstanding service, Case knew it could amplify its support offerings even more – and save customers time, money, and downtime hassle – if they could figure out how to expand their compressor data monitoring capabilities.

For the past two years they’d already been relying on MSA FieldServer™ for IoT solutions and multi-protocol gateways. So, Case again turned to FieldServer and presented this challenge:

How can we offer real-time data monitoring from a central or remote location, provide simultaneous monitoring of all compressor controllers, and achieve faster response time?

THE SOLUTION

FieldServer acted as swiftly as the implementation of its solution. Within just a couple of weeks, it delivered a robust platform that allows Case to offer customers speedy remote troubleshooting, diagnostics, and remote connectivity.

AirView™ Cloud, the data visualization solution on the compressor controller, is a versatile platform that has exponentially expanded Case’s compressor data monitoring abilities – to the delight of its team and its customers.

With AirView Cloud, Case can now remotely connect to any of their partnering customer locations anywhere in the world using a secure connection. AirView Cloud lets them acknowledge an issue, and either resolve it in mere minutes or determine whether Case needs to schedule a site visit.

Plus, with the VPN solution from FieldServer, Case engineers can remotely access the Allen-Bradley hardware on each compressor and using the Allen-Bradley development software, reconfigure or troubleshoot the controllers. The virtual tunnel via the FieldServer Cloud also allows for Compressor local HMI web based screens to be viewed remotely.

“Thanks to FieldServer, the answer to our problem turned out to be surprisingly swift and simple… They delivered an out-of-the-box solution with all the bells and whistles, and implemented it in less than 14 days. We now have the ability to respond almost immediately and resolve compressed air system issues to improve system efficiency and increase overall system reliability. We appreciate both the functionality of the FieldServer solution and the price point. In fact, we’re so pleased, we’re now thinking of placing FieldServer on each control system we sell and service.” - Devin Sullivan, Case Controls
Clearing the Confusion: Third-Party Integration Made Simple

Welcome to Part 1 of our multi-part series on Third-Party Integration, the solution to right-here, right-now connectivity and remote support.

If you’ve ever been up to your knees in muddy waters you know that it’s not easy to know where to take the next step. Will it be solid and sure? Or will it put you on your tail, flailing about in the muck and the mire?

Clear waters, on the other hand, let you see the exactly where your next step should be as well as what obstacles lie ahead.

For many, third-party integration is a lot like muddy waters. You’ve heard the terms, you kind of understand, but do you really? With that kind of uncertainty comes hesitation, regret, and missteps.

That’s unfortunate, because the benefits of third-party integration are crucial to supporting a state-of-the-art automation system.

So, let’s clear up the muddy waters so you can make a crystal clear decision about which third-party integration solution is right for you.

The Definition of Third Party Integration

The first and obvious question is: What is third-party integration? Third-party integration is just the fancy, technical term for helping devices talk to each other.

One example of third-party integration can be found in something most of us use every day – the map application on our cell phones. Along with directions to where you’re going, you also get location-specific information, such as where the nearest gas station or fast food restaurant is. That doesn’t just magically happen. Third-party integration makes it work.

In building automation, third-party integration promotes secure, encrypted connection between a variety of disparate applications, devices, and platforms using either the cloud or a mobile device.

Understanding Cloud-Based Connectivity

To enable cloud architecture, there has to be something to facilitate the communication between the device and the cloud. That “something” is known as a network protocol and includes these three standards:

  1. Webhooks
  2. RESTful API
  3. MQTT (Message Queue Telemetry Transport)

We’ll be looking at these standards, including what they are and how they work, in more depth in future blog posts. Until now, just know that common standards enable that sharing of information, including real-time access to data, visual confirmation, and notifications, such as alarms.

How Third-Party Integration Can Speed Up Device Support

Remote connectivity is so prevalent in our daily lives, we’ve come to expect it – so why shouldn’t you expect it for automation? Remote connectivity to your products in the field is the best way to deliver immediate, reliable monitoring, troubleshooting, and issues resolution in real time – without having to be on site.

MSA FieldServer™ is our proven “one-box solution” that can enable you to use your existing devices and applications without big, expensive add-ons.

Application Integrations

From business applications like Salesforce customer relationship management (CRM) technologies to Cisco IoT platforms, MSA FieldServer automation gateway products can bring together all your devices faster, easier, and more securely than you thought possible.

What’s Next

It makes no good business sense to risk avoidable delays and inefficiencies. With MSA FieldServer third-party integration solutions, you will speed up your response time, saving time and money along the way.

Check back to this blog for a continuation of this series where we’ll be talking about:

If you’re a MSA FieldServer customer and are open to getting a whole new level of support for you and your team, let’s talk about enabling the features you need.

If you’re not a FieldServer customer and want to swap waiting for some time-in-the-future service calls for real-time, remote automation support, contact us.

Case Study: Cortex

Commercial building owners and property managers face a number of fixed and non-fixed fees that cut into their profits and increase their bottom lines. These can include maintenance costs, cleaning costs, property taxes and upkeep of the grounds around their buildings. However, according to ENERGY STAR, the joint Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy (DOE) program that promotes energy efficiency, one of these costs stands head and shoulders above the rest:

Energy use is the single largest operating expense in commercial office buildings, representing approximately one-third of typical operating budgets and accounting for almost 20 percent of the nation’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Of the many different systems and devices in a commercial office building that may consume energy, the largest energy consumer is inarguably heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). According to a 2015 report by the DOE, HVAC accounts for 35 percent of total building energy usage. The next largest consumer of energy is lighting, at just 11 percent.

This means that getting HVAC costs under control can have a significant impact on overall energy costs and help reduce the operating expenses for commercial buildings. That’s an attractive proposition for building owners, who are either paying that expense out of pocket to the detriment of their profits, or passing that expense on to their occupants, raising the cost to lease their space and making it difficult to compete in the marketplace – especially in places where commercial real estate vacancy rates are high.

But getting HVAC costs under control can be challenging. A building owner could simply turn down their systems during the hottest and coldest months of the year to obtain savings, but those savings would come at the cost of occupant comfort. Just a few days of insufficient heating or cooling could result in occupant complaints and – eventually – high turnover rates.

To make balancing the comfort of occupants and the cost of HVAC easier, Cortex launched a building analytics software solution that harvests and analyzes the data being generated by the HVAC devices and sensors in a building. Utilizing this data, the Cortex solution takes advantage of the advanced analytics and machine learning to generate actionable insights and intelligence that enables building owners and property managers to better manage their HVAC systems – allowing them to keep occupants comfortable while still cutting the energy usage of their HVAC systems and devices.

The Cortex application is so effective that it is currently in use by some of the largest and most recognizable property management companies, including: Savanna, CBRE and Empire State Realty Trust, which has saved approximately $800,000 per year in energy costs utilizing the Cortex solution in New York City’s iconic Empire State Building.

But, for the Cortex solution to function, it needs the ability to harvest device and temperature data from HVAC systems and sensors around the building. And that’s where a gateway solution becomes necessary.

Challenge
When entering or working with a new building for the first time, the Cortex team is literally going in blind – with little knowledge of which HVAC systems are in use and what sensors are present. The company also needs to get the data from those unknown devices – through the building management system (BMS) – if its application is going to be able to analyze it and deliver actionable insights to the user.

To accomplish this, Cortex was using one particular gateway solution, but that product was discontinued and became unavailable for purchase. Upon beginning the search for a replacement, Cortex found the MSA FieldServer BACnet IoT Gateway and decided to standardize on that solution for all of its new buildings and customers moving forward.

In fact, the device checked so many boxes and met Cortex’s requirements so effectively that the company made that decision quickly and without further exhaustive testing of other solutions in the marketplace.

MSA’s Solution
Utilizing a plug-and-play FieldServer BACnet IoT Gateway solution, Cortex is able to quickly and easily integrate with a new building or new customer’s BMS solution and begin to aggregate and analyze HVAC device data. But the FieldServer Gateway does more than just make the device information available for the Cortex application – it also fills another essential unique need that Cortex has – it serves as a de-facto BACnet discovery tool.

Cortex often enters new buildings and customer relationships with little preexisting knowledge of what is there. The MSA FieldServer BACnet IoT Gateway helps tremendously with this challenge by immediately exploring the building’s BMS solution to identify what systems are there and establish connectivity to them. And it is capable of doing so right off of the shelf.

Once installed, the Gateway establishes the systems and devices that are present in the building and allows Cortex to pick and choose the devices it wants to monitor through an easy to use Web interface.

Working with some of the largest property management companies and operating in some of the world’s most iconic buildings, data security was also of utmost concern for Cortex. MSA’s solution also met Cortex’s stringent cybersecurity requirements as the company’s solution and device cloud have been rigorously penetration tested and certified secure.

Benefits to Cortex

  • A “plug and play” IoT gateway solution that delivers the device and system data necessary for their software to deliver actionable insights to users.
  • The ability to quickly and easily identify the devices and systems on the building network and easily choose which devices to monitor – even when going into a new building with little insight into what’s present.
  • The rigorous cybersecurity testing and certifications required to ensure that Cortex users and customers are protected and their data is secure.
The Sierra Monitor solution checked a number of boxes for us. The most critical of which is that we go into a new building without a lot of prior knowledge of what’s there. We need a BACnet discovery tool and that’s what the product delivers. Right now, Sierra Monitor’s BACnet IoT Gateway is the solution of choice for when we go into a building. When we go in blind to a new building, we’re going in with Sierra Monitor. It’s what we use. - Rick Balsano, Cortex
MSA’s FieldServer Gateway Adds New OPC UA Driver

The launch of the OPC UA Driver for the MSA FieldServer™ Gateway provides engineers who are responsible for OEM equipment design, industrial processes, manufacturing lines, and building management a new powerful protocol option for cloud and SCADA applications.

For these engineers continuing their long odyssey seeking interoperable open system computing platforms coupled with compatible industrial equipment communication protocols, the elusive holy grail of open-system automation now appears to be in sight.  The innovative Open Platform Communication United Architecture (OPC UA) driver for MSA’s versatile FieldServer Gateway will simplify and enhance the journey to platform independent cloud-based automation.

This relatively new OPC UA technology brings together the productivity and cost advantages of machine-to-machine intelligence, the IIoT and cloud-based architecture.  This approach promises to greatly simplify the industrial automation migration path to the cloud while improving data security and much more.

With its pedigree going back decades, OPC UA is the latest generation of the classic version of OPC, which was borne of the object linking and embedding (OLE) technology that replaced ladder logic.  Classic OPC was the missing link allowing HMI/SCADA systems to interface by converting generic-OPC read/write requests into device-specific requests and vice-versa.

The Challenges

Developed by the OPC Foundation as an industry standard, OPC UA is used as a transport route and IT standard with integrated security. As an OPC UA client, the controller pushes data to cloud and SCADA applications.

Next-gen OPC UA provides: (1) platform independence, (2)  enhanced data security, (3) plant- to executive-floor integration, (4) IEC standard compatibility, (5) a simplified architecture, (6) a robust, but not technically restricted specification, (7) comprises a large amount of domain specific add-ons, (8) is scalable, (9) is future-proof, (10) and is easily deployed.

As systems engineers embrace next-gen OPC UA architecture on the way to the cloud or SCADA systems, they are still faced with some challenges.  They must integrate legacy automation systems running over BACnet, Modbus, EtherNet/IP DNP 3.0, etc, residing on installed controllers.  In a large facility, there are often thousands of I/O points and hundreds of programmable logic controllers (PLCs)–all managed by a distributed control system (DCS).

The Solution

To simplify the task, MSA’s FieldServer Gateway Interface family of communications products with its ProtoNode model’s OPC UA interface driver is designed to help engineers and technicians reach their cloud-based and SCADA industrial automation objectives with a minimum of delays or roadblocks.  With more than 140+ communication protocols, MSA’s FieldServer Gateway family of products provides the means for disparate devices to communicate in the cloud.

How It Works

The MSA FieldServer ProtoNode Gateway meets the requirements of the OPC UA driver as set by the OPC Foundation.  The FieldServer is designed with Serial & Ethernet ports, which can be loaded with any of the 144 protocols to then be connected to OPC UA network.

The ProtoNode Gateway can emulate both a client and a server. When configured as a client, the ProtoNode’s OPC UA driver will connect to the configured OPC UA servers and attempt to read the requested data points. This data is then mapped to any of the other protocols loaded in the FieldServer.

When the ProtoNode Gateway is configured as a server, the OPC UA driver creates an endpoint that other OPC UA clients can connect to.  It creates the OPC objects and attributes based on the configuration to make data from other protocols available to OPC UA clients.

Conclusions

The MSA FieldServer ProtoNode Gateway with OPC UA driver offers building, facility and plant engineers many advantages in terms of open system computing platform flexibility along with the integration of the most popular industrial automation communication bus protocols, including BACnet, Modbus, EtherNet/IP, etc.  It looks to truly be the satisfying end to a long industrial automation odyssey seeking to leverage the power of machine-to-machine intelligence, IIoT equipment and the cloud.

Achieving the Benefits of Remote Connectivity Faster and More Reliably

While the productivity and cost advantages of cloud-based building and factory automation systems are relatively easy to identify and quantify, the road to achieving those benefits includes hazard warning signs alerting you to the complexity of the task ahead.

The success of cloud-based building and factory automation projects depends on highly intelligent servers, reliable remote communication networks and engineering expertise.  Industrial companies today operate from multiple buildings or locations. Their systems control any number of functions, production lines or batch processes with a mix of newer and legacy equipment over communication networks and the industrial internet of things (IIoT).

When the advantages and complexities of cloud-based building and factory automation systems are presented to senior executives, among the first questions asked are:  “How much?” and “How long?”  The answers vary, but they hinge on the choice of cloud-based systems including the remote connectivity server solution and the team responsible for the project.

Solutions to the Challenges

The saying, “time is money,” applies when asking questions about the cost and turnaround time to implement cloud-based systems. It pays to consult a proven vendor team with ready-to-go technologies and equipment. For example, MSA FieldServer™, is partnering with a lighting control manufacturer, which is an IIoT company focused on building energy management solutions, including smart controls and intelligent lighting.

The lighting control company chose the MSA FieldServer ProtoAir IIoT Gateway as a versatile, reliable product that can add a Building Management System (BMS) to  its solution suite. They have a robust platform designed to enable a virtually unlimited number of IoT applications, including connected lighting IoT capabilities. The company’s lighting solution controls lights, saves energy, and enables additional IoT applications within industrial settings.

The FieldServer product line, with over 300,000 installed units at thousands of industrial and commercial facilities, provides multi-protocol gateways that offer numerous advantages, including ease of set-up that accommodates configuration changes or customization. The BTL certified FieldServer product suite also provides the industry’s widest choice of multi-protocol support that can be installed with confidence

MSA’s FieldServer team provides expert support and service for the 140+ protocols available with FieldServer, including BACnet, LonWorks, KNX, M-Bus, EtherNet/IP, and more.  With integrated remote access, FieldServer reduces truck-rolls to site(s), offering secure visibility and remote access into building and factory field devices through FieldServer IIoT gateways.

MSA FieldServer’s BACnet Router is a complete building management BACnet internetworking tool. Users can connect to BACnet devices and bridge all their device data needs. It comes with one or two serial ports for MS/TP, and there’s a Wi-Fi option too.

As versatile as it is intelligent, the MSA FieldServer product suite is compatible with a wide range of factory automation communication protocols, including Modbus, EtherNet/IP & DNP 3.0. From an architectural perspective, FieldServer is an advanced connectivity solution to programmable logic controllers (PLC’s), including those from Emerson and Rockwell.

Building and plant system analytics data, diagnostics and updates can be implemented quickly and reliably via the SMC Cloud or the third-party cloud of the customer’s choice.  For example, if unusually high temperatures require extra building or factory floor cooling, thermostat changes can be uploaded automatically via secure VPN lines to manage the HVAC system. If unforeseen product demand requires weekend overtime, the building security, lighting control and HVAC systems can be adjusted remotely via mobile applications on phones or tablets.

In the fast-paced IIoT world, firmware updates are frequently necessary for building and factory floor systems that operate facility infrastructure and factory. Again, the FieldServer is there to make updates to building equipment and factory equipment via VPN and the SMC Cloud.

In a world of on-demand expectations, FieldServer is delivering building and factory analytical data 24-x-7 around the globe.  Such data supports equipment preventative maintenance programs and systems that alert building and plant managers to points of required standard equipment maintenance or alert them to unexpected conditions that require back-up equipment to be turned on temporarily while maintenance crews go to work.

Conclusions

The MSA FieldServer suite of gateway products and the SMC Cloud with mobile applications access are providing the remote connectivity solutions needed to help companies fully automate their operations like never before.  They’re reducing costs, boosting profits and many times gaining a competitive advantage based on IIoT technologies. MSA’s highly proven FieldServer, SMC Cloud and mobile interface, along with its talented engineers and solution partners are there to help you transition your business to the cloud–on-time and on-budget.