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Managing IIoT security with cloud-based VPNs

As part of Industry 4.0, smart devices are being introduced to industrial systems to track a wide range of data and provide valuable insights in real time. Pressure sensors, for example, monitor pipelines to detect leaks; level sensors measure waste recycling, fuel storage or irrigation; and water treatment centers use smart aquatic monitors, while industrial processes use devices to measure and control plant and equipment temperatures.

The most common reason for IIoT deployment, however, is for preventative maintenance. Data collected from smart sensors plays an invaluable role in determining when a service is due or when essential parts are about to fail.

Support administrators report between 60% and 70% of issues concern software upgrades or minor tweaks to equipment settings. Remote connectivity lets managers keep a close eye on essential operational data while at the same time allowing support engineers to troubleshoot issues in advance to ensure zero downtime.

Secure remote IIoT access

Local IT environments are traditionally extended by remote desktop or VPN connections. This is a well-established way for engineers to manage systems and equipment over the internet from remote locations. Minor problems, software patches or firmware updates can be actioned without having to leave the main office, which in turn saves time and travel costs.

Cloud-based VPNs, a more recent development, provide similar levels of protection for data passing between remote smart devices in the field and centrally located administrators. Cloud-based VPNs offer a viable alternative to direct connections for managing remote equipment.

Access and management are enabled by means of client VPN software at the customer’s control center, a server belonging to a cloud provider like Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure and remote gateways on all endpoints. Authentication and creation of encrypted tunnels are managed in the cloud.

A growing number of manufacturers and industrial organizations are pivoting to cloud-based VPN services for secure management of remote IIoT equipment because cloud VPN services offer airtight security as well as additional flexibility, scalability and reduced technical complexity.

Data encryption

Cloud-based VPN services create end-to-end encryption between an on-premises central management point and remote IIoT devices. The cloud server conducts authentication checks automatically and establishes appropriate tunnels. Best of all, it does not decrypt or store any data that passes through.

Remote access to IIoT devices may also be on-demand — restricted to times and other parameters specified by the customer. For example, access may be limited to service engineers according to the principle of least privilege, which ensures security remains as airtight as possible.

Reduced technical complexity

Users have the freedom to install client software on any endpoint device for remote access to IIoT data anywhere at any time. Once connected, system administrators may remotely pull data for analysis or distribute software updates and patches exactly as if the smart devices were on the local network while in reality, they may be in distant remote locations.

Additionally, the remote access environment may be easily scaled up or down. Engineers can easily add or remove devices and manage client accounts and certificates in line with business requirements.

Many of the processes involved in establishing remote desktop connections are taken care of automatically. Engineers no longer need to manually configure complex security measures. Security elements may be set up at the click of a mouse.

Cloud services allocate specific virtual IP addresses to every endpoint, and systems engineers can assign identical IP schemes for different sites without having to worry about conflicts of address — further simplifying the installation process.

The cloud server acts as a central point for setting up and managing remote devices. Administrators simply have to connect to the cloud server to monitor traffic or to manage certificates, remote gateways and client accounts.

Machine management

As highly specialized operational technology integrates with IIoT devices, technicians can access and remotely manage machine data in real time to spot part failures at an early stage and maintain overall equipment effectiveness.

In some situations, it makes sense to manage data security directly via a remote desktop virtual private network connection. However, industrial enterprises are increasingly turning to more versatile cloud-based remote access VPNs.

The ease of use, flexibility and scalability of remote access VPNs in combination with a cloud-based management infrastructure is becoming pivotal to protect the privacy of valuable data to and from a multitude of remote IIoT devices as it passes over the internet.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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