Bring Your Own Device: Addressing Device Flexibility in a Mobile Control Environment

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By Leelon Scott

Enterprise applications that empower the C-suite, customer interface and field force have made the transition to mobile, driven by distributed workforces, the value of connectivity and the ubiquity of capable devices. However, industrial control applications have largely remained locked in back rooms and attached to fixed equipment. They are static and often proprietary and unyielding to creative application and data sharing. But that's changing.

Inexpensive "black box" devices with a short-range Ethernet radio interface, WiFi compatibility and the capability to handle many I/O points are broadening mobile applications within industrial control system environments. These applications can provide improved data access, especially for preventive maintenance and troubleshooting; greater efficiency compared to manual data gathering; and less danger to employees from arc-flash hazards associated with live electrical equipment. Accompanying this transition is the concept of BYOD (bring your own device).

While the hardware required of a solution such as black box is negligible in cost, the deployment of special-purpose mobile devices can be cost-prohibitive for large and distributed organizations. An extremely flexible application interface lends itself to the relatively new BYOD phenomenon, which changes the economic paradigm of mobile deployment. A $100 tablet can serve as the gateway to detailed, anywhere, anytime equipment control and data access.

In simple terms, BYOD refers to the policy of permitting employees to bring personally-owned mobile devices to the workplace and to use them to access privileged company information and applications. In high-growth markets such as Brazil, BYOD has become the de-facto standard. According to research firm Ovum, upwards of 75 percent of corporations there have enabled enterprise mobility via BYOD policies. In developed markets where legacy IT investments prevail, that figure approaches 50 percent.

BYOD begins with an application interface that's device- agnostic. It's built using SVG (scalable vector graphics) technology, which automatically scales to any device. Using a specific manufacturer's protocol typically locks the enterprise into a specific hardware platform, often requiring an outlay of thousands of dollars. The alternative - changing screen sizes to accommodate mobile device users - requires expensive and manual code rewrites. With new interface devices, any enterprise-authorized device, from any manufacturer, will work out of the box.

For municipalities operating large industrial plants where capital investment limitations exist, the cost savings enabled by BYOD can mean the difference between project discussion and project launch. Allowing employees to bring their own devices contributes to keeping project costs below capital investment limits. The cost avoidance enabled by preventive maintenance and improvements for mean time to failure solidifies the ROI, typically resulting in cut maintenance budgets and end-of-year surpluses.

For many organizations, the concept of BYOD is new and foreign. In IT departments, security is often the primary concern. What if an employee uses his or her smartphone to access the company network and then loses it? How can the enterprise thwart access to unsecured data by untrusted parties? How can it avoid a security breach when an employee leaves the company with his or her corporate device?

To alleviate these concerns, a security appliance between the interface and the mobile devices secures data transmission, and dedicated WiFi access to monitoring and reporting is username and password protected. Another password protocol is employed to enable remote access to control panels. Redundant password protection mitigates the threat of unscrupulous users should a device go missing, and employees who leave the company are simply locked out of applications via password change and/or application removal.

Early adopters of BYOD policies also struggle with data-plan expense sharing. As less-expensive, cell-based, dynamic IP becomes the norm for mobile Internet access and data plan expenses fall, this is a fast-fading issue. In most cases, employees encourage BYOD: In a recent survey from Unisys, some 44 percent of job seekers viewed an organization more positively if company applications were supported on their device.

As the control system industry moves inevitably to a more mobile-accessible environment, BYOD will be front and center, and companies will need to find their own correct approach to the subject. If so, they can capitalize on the high-capacity processing of minute monitoring standards and the benefits from improved access to control system data.

About the Author: Leelon Scott serves on the WWEMA Board of Directors and is Director of OEM Business Development for Revere Control Systems, a Birmingham, Ala.-based independent control system integrator offering turnkey automation, communication and control systems for water and wastewater equipment manufacturers.

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