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Dell IoT Division focuses on partnerships, OT-IT convergence

The recently announced Dell IoT Division is on track to make the company a one-stop IoT shop, thanks to numerous partnerships and new IoT initiatives.

The Dell IoT Division launched in October 2017 amid great fanfare and a multimedia presentation in New York City. While the "magic" commercials in which Dell Technologies claims to turn dairy cows into data centers may be farfetched, the company aims to do something very profound: It's looking to deliver the same type of automation via IoT that many consumers now experience at home to manufacturing plants, office buildings and agricultural facilities.

Through its edge, core and cloud architecture, the company has announced it will invest $1 billion in its Dell IoT Division over the next three years. Initiatives include Project Fire with VMware, to help organizations adopt and deploy IoT more rapidly; Project Iris with RSA Labs, to provide security to the edge; and Project Worldwide Herd, a project to enable deep learning on geographically dispersed data.

Dell is credible merely from the sheer scale of what it offers and the companies that are aligned with it.
Mark Peterssenior analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group

Mark Peters, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, said Dell has underscored its commitment to IoT by creating a separate division.

"I think Dell has a really strong chance to become a one-stop shop for the backbone infrastructure for IoT," Peters said. "Dell is credible merely from the sheer scale of what it offers and the companies that are aligned with it. However, companies should not expect Dell to produce products such as intelligent sensors."

Building the Dell IoT partner network

Indeed, Dell may not produce intelligent sensors itself, but rather lean on a partner network. Along with investing in industry-specific startups such as FogHorn Systems, Graphcore and ZingBox, the Dell IoT Division will also look to companies that have decades of experience working in the operations side of business, including KMC Controls and Emerson Automation Solutions.

Richard Newberry, CEO at KMC Controls, said he had an epiphany recently when an IT manager from a bank who was finishing up a deployment at a new branch took out his mobile phone and showed him how he could get updates on the condition of his thermostat at home.

"The customer pointed to his mobile phone and said, 'See this? Here's a view of my thermostat at home, I want something like this for my bank,'" Newberry explained.

Now, with Dell Edge Gateways and the KMC Commander IoT platform, KMC Controls can give its banking and other business customers that same view of operations that the bank manager gets from his home system.

Commander runs over Amazon Web Services public cloud, Newberry said, mostly for security purposes. Plans are in the works to run Commander over Microsoft Azure in the months ahead.

"Our end users can use our cloud, their own cloud or keep the data on premises," Newberry said. "Analytics do happen in the cloud, and some analytics happen at the edge devices and are sent to the cloud."

Taking IoT to the factory floor

Mike Boudreaux, director of connected services at Emerson Automation Solutions, said with the connectivity to IoT devices and the cloud that Dell Edge Gateways provide, Emerson can deliver "measurement as a service" to its customers.

"People in a lot of the plants we service don't have the expertise in the operations that they've had in the past; they've lost people over time," Boudreaux said. "Now, we can offer the data on the measurements as a fee-for-service. This helps our customers reduce maintenance costs and increases the plant's reliability and overall operations performance."

The company provides manufacturing plants 24/7 monitoring on heat sensors, pumps and valves that can help plant managers replace parts before they break down. This kind of predictive maintenance reduces outages and keeps plants running smoothly.

Dell and its partners integrated multiple technologies to make this happen. Emerson provides the sensors and sensor networks based on Wireless Highway Addressable Remote Transducer, or WirelessHART, a protocol established for field device networks. Connectivity from the factory floor to the cloud is established via a Dell Edge Gateway, which runs on the Windows 10 IoT Enterprise operating system. Edge data collection, secure transfer and cloud storage runs over OSIsoft's PI Cloud Connect, which uses Microsoft Azure Cloud Services and the AMQP protocol. Emerson provides the data analytics based on its Plantweb Performance Advisor and OSIsoft's PI Asset Framework.

"In the past, these plants would have collected data on pumps, heat exchanges and control valves only once a month," Boudreaux said. "Today, we can give them real-time insight into operational performance. We like to think of it as a heart monitor for a process plant."

Getting IT and OT to work together

One challenge the Dell IoT Division wants to solve is bridging the gap between the operational technology (OT) department and IT.

Jason Shepherd, director of IoT strategy and partnerships at Dell, said the company found in working with many customers that OT will provision shadow IT in an attempt to bypass the IT department.

"We see it all the time," Shepherd said. "In fact, in many of our briefings, we have introduced IT and OT to one another for the first time; very often they have never met each other before."

Shepherd said as part of its effort to bridge the gap between OT and IT, Dell has been working closely with the Linux Foundation to create the EdgeX Foundry, an open source project to create an open framework for IoT edge computing. The effort started in April 2017 and has more than 60 participating companies.

"What we need to enable is a distributed computing model in which any IoT protocol, whether it's a Zigbee light switch or Modbus meter, can communicate with IT systems," Shepherd said, adding that everyone in the ecosystem needs to be able to develop around a common API so workloads can be communicated from the edge to the cloud.

"We're looking to do what Apache did for websites and Android did for smartphones," Shepherd said.

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