Harald Remmert headshot on Q&A background
Harald Remmert headshot on Q&A background
Harald Remmert headshot on Q&A background
Harald Remmert headshot on Q&A background
Harald Remmert headshot on Q&A background

The Future of IoT is in Speed—and Security

June 9, 2021
Digi International’s Harald Remmert looks at technology upgrades in a post-pandemic world.

As senior director of technology at Digi International, Harald Remmert is an accomplished technology leader in the IoT ecosystem. He has more than 20 years of experience in product strategy, design, development, testing and engineering. He’s working with new technologies and tools such as 5G, edge compute, machine learning and artificial intelligence in his role at Digi International, a global provider of IoT connectivity products, services and solutions founded in 1985.

In a wide-ranging discussion with Machine Design, Remmert discussed the accelerated use of IoT during the pandemic, the issues of technology and security, and how and why those not yet on the IoT bandwagon should jump on board:

Machine Design: In what ways did the pandemic accelerate the use of Industrial IoT? What are some of the lessons your customers have seen from that adoption?

Harald Remmert: With the onset of the pandemic, suddenly we all were forced to work remotely. It was difficult for many of our customers to monitor their on-site systems, especially in industrial use cases. Essentially, they were flying blind for the first time. The need for visibility and the ability to remotely manage and control led to a huge acceleration in the adoption of industrial IoT.

Remote monitoring and control of systems and the adoption of connectivity solutions became a huge need for industrial businesses. For example, cameras needed to be connected to routers to provide visibility to these newly remote sites. Console Management devices and Industrial Gateways provided remote access to systems and machines.

Our customers learned overall that they need to evolve their business to become more resilient, with a disaster plan and the tools necessary in place to handle unprecedented times. Some of our industrial customers were further along than others in their digital transformation, which proved to be incredibly helpful in how they were able to acclimate to the pandemic. Others who hadn’t begun the transition were faced with the decision to accelerate deployment of this type of remote monitoring and connectivity technology or risk their business going down.

For the many industrial customers who did jumpstart their IoT journey, we’ve seen them continue down this path, and we’ll likely see ongoing transformational changes in industrial settings in terms of desirable employee skill sets and lower asset failure rates. 

MD: With the expected acceleration in the growth of IIoT, what do manufacturers who aren’t yet connected need to know about the value of IIoT?

HR: Number one, IIoT offers customers greater insight, flexibility and recovery options. If one were to look at our customers who have begun their digital transformation, they would find that these customers are ready for the next business disruption because of the better resiliency, agility and business continuity from implementing IIoT technology. Take the current supply chain shortage as a related example—businesses who have anticipated a conflict like this are faring much better than those who are not.

MD: Explain the basics of 5G as it applies to an industrial setting. What are the challenges and opportunities in the adoption of 5G technology?

HR: In an industrial setting, 5G first and foremost allows cutting the cord and provides customers with agility and flexibility in a single technology for a wide range of use cases. 5G above 4G enables higher speeds, lower latency, and more seamless communication and interaction between machines and humans. 4G already allows for many sensors and devices to be deployed, and 5G enables more of these with lower power consumption.

The more of these sensors and devices that are deployed, the better the visibility into business challenges and opportunities. IT and OT connectivity can also be married through leveraging 5G, allowing tighter integration and running time sensitive OT factory traffic and regular IT traffic over the same infrastructure. Wireless communications in general give industrial customers more flexibility in installation and communication.

With 5G still standing as a new evolution in technology, there is still lot of misinformation out there. Sometimes when people describe 5G, they paint a long-term picture that might be possible in the future but isn’t applicable right now. 5G isn’t available in all locations, which is another challenge to adoption.

My advice to readers and customers is to really consider what piece of 5G can they leverage right now, how it can help them grow, and what they can utilize in the future as the technology evolves.

MD: Security is a critical issue. Talk about network security in terms of both internal and external threats.

HR: As soon as you connect something to a network, it is at security risk to bad actors and attacks. These bad actors can try and bring down the system via a Denial-of-Service attack or take a system hostage through a ransom attack, or potentially permanently damage equipment. These attacks can come from the inside and the outside.

When someone hacks into a system, like through an open wireless access point or an open port they can plug into, without data encryption and the proper protection, these bad actors can use this first entry point as a jumping point to other systems. Likewise, when you connect your industrial systems with your IT systems, you run the risk of an internal employee clicking on a malicious link and opening the door to spreading from the IT to the production system.

The key to prevent these types of security threats is not just relying on a single layer of security, like a carrier networks security. Layering security on top of what the carrier offers is crucial to strong network security. Best practices like securing encrypted communications tunnels, limiting open ports, consistent auditing and other security protocols are considered a “zero-trust architecture.” Most of all, I believe in auditing and monitoring as the key method to protect your network.

In terms of 5G networks, it’s important to note that 5G networks are structured a bit differently—it is no longer a monolithic system, like 2G/3G and 4G were. With 5G’s services-based architecture each subsystem is a little bit better protected and isolated, which helps with isolating traffic and overall security. Looking ahead, as network slicing becomes more available with the rollout of 5G standalone, traffic can be even better isolated and protected from end-to-end with slice segmentation and auditing.

“Layering security on top of what the carrier offers is crucial to strong network security. Best practices like securing encrypted communications tunnels, limiting open ports, consistent auditing and other security protocols are considered a ‘zero-trust architecture.’ Most of all, I believe in auditing and monitoring as the key method to protect your network.” MD: What is the primary barrier to adoption of IIoT, and how do manufacturers overcome that barrier?

HR: Simply determining where to start on your IIoT journey can be a primary barrier to many companies and manufacturers. It’s important to ask yourself, “What are the problems we are experiencing in our industrial environment, and how can technology service these problems?” Whichever problems bubble up to the top of the list should be addressed first with a pilot to determine its effectiveness.

Another common barrier to adoption is not knowing the right people—partners with relevant expertise are key to success. Manufacturers can overcome many of these barriers by working with partners, so they don’t have to spend time “reinventing the wheel.” Over time, as your system grows, you can become more self-sufficient.

On a final note, once a partner is selected, its important to pick the best technology for your needs. I recommend trying a few different options via pilots to see what works best for each application. And “best” technology may not mean “latest” technology in all use cases. Thoughtful iteration and evolution will often lead to better ROI.

MD: So this is the right time to move forward on the IoT journey?

HR: For customers that already have some form of internet connectivity (like older cellular technology), they need to understand that other technologies available today still have the power to make their lives easier. Don’t wait for 5G to upgrade. Starting with 4G and evolving your system to 5G is a cost-efficient and effective strategy for many companies.

Lastly, from a management perspective, it’s important to understand the health and security of your system. You want a management system alongside your IIoT deployments that allows you to manage and monitor your system. You want a system that scales with your digital transformation—and that has resiliency built-in at all levels, so that your business can become more resilient and can adopt to unforeseen changes like the recent pandemic. 

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