I attended the UC session discussing “The Cloud” and OSIsoft’s mobile efforts. Their engineers have playfully dubbed this “PI in the Sky”. One of the refreshing things about the UC and the overall culture of OSIsoft and their Users Conference philosophy, you see presentations by the very engineers who are building the products. You aren’t being barraged by a bunch of over-processed marketing hype. Even if the engineers become mildly influenced by hanging out with the marketing folks, they always spill the beans and offer honest assessments of their products over a beer at the evening’s party.
The presenters were very clear that much of what was discussed in this presentation was preliminary work and said that it was nice to be talking about something without having to discuss anticipated ship dates. Some of this is in in early proof of concept stage and some is closer to market.
OSIsoft is planning to leverage the Microsoft Windows Azure platform as the basis for their cloud offerings. This makes perfect sense because this means that they are able to port their existing code base. All of their experience developing for the .NET platform using Visual Studio is applicable. I’m not sure how much work is involved in porting to Azure but I suspect that time to market for some of these products may be fairly fast as they are only making modifications to existing code rather than developing a large new code base.
I haven’t personally had any hands on experience with Azure. My MSDN subscription gives me some free cloud resources to use, but I haven’t had any business motivation for devoting any time to it yet. I am under the impression that Azure really encompasses a wide range of offerings, from allowing you to host some data and web code on the cloud on up to running Hyper V VM’s of your systems.
There are really two main problems that the cloud might help us with. The first problem is the need to distribute PI data from one source to various destinations. The second is the need to distribute PI data to the rapidly growing number of smart phones, tablets, and consumer type devices. In both cases there are existing solutions, but the cloud potentially offers some advantages, such as the ability to provision these services quickly on an as needed basis, without the need to purchase new hardware, or reconfigure existing networks.
Many customers have had the need to transfer PI data from one site to another for quite some time. There are any number of reasons for this. Examples would be sending data from the source up to the corporate office, sending data to a business partner, or sharing data with a customer. Today this usually means setting up VPN tunnels and a server to host the PI to PI interface. OSIsoft is working toward being able to offer a range of options, from hosting the PI to PI transfer in the cloud, to hosting PI servers in the cloud. It isn’t entirely clear whether they will just provide the tools for you to set this up yourself, or if they will have some sort of service offering.
I can offer a concrete example where these types of cloud-based services might be helpful. I recently setup a PI server at a major research university. They have a grant to study the effects of integrating renewable power sources into the electric grid. There are several power companies and other organizations that have agreed to supply information to assist in this study. All of this information will be fed into the university PI server for archiving and analysis. Many of these companies have PI systems of their own containing the source data. From a technical standpoint, they could setup VPN’s and use PI to PI to transfer the agreed upon data. This isn’t technically that difficult but when you start talking to IT departments about connecting networks, it becomes difficult. It would be much easier if we had a tool allowing us to push the information from the source using HTTPS up to a cloud based transfer agent, which would make sure that the data made it to the university PI server. This transfer agent would ideally be able to backfill data just like the standard PI to PI interface.
The second problem we want to solve is how to make PI data available to devices outside of our network. OSIsoft is proposing having a cloud-hosted Coresight Server to allow any PC to access data from a web browser. iPad’s would access the same data. Smartphones will later offer simplified displays and tight integration with PI Notifications. A claims based authentication scheme would be used to authorize access to the data.
The iPad code was demonstrated for us, and OSIsoft anticipates making it available by the end of the year. It can view your existing Coresight displays. The iPad app is a native IOS app offering the kind of fluid multi-touch based interface we all love. You can swipe left and right to pan a trend through time. You can pinch to zoom in and you can drag and drop elements on the screen.
While the engineers may joke about PI in the Sky, it would seem that they have given this issue a great deal of thought. There are very clear user needs in this area. OSIsoft seems to have broken down the different use cases and has proposed solutions for each. The Azure framework seems to be a sound foundation. OSIsoft has vast experience with the Microsoft tools and an existing code base which can be ported to Azure. I would not be surprised if we didn’t start seeing some of these solutions available in the not too distant future. OSIsoft established themselves as the company that gave us data on our desktop. Now they are working hard to give us data in our pocket.