Microsoft IoT Solutions – From The Device To The Cloud

Industry 4.0 refers to the concept of the “industrial revolution” in the contemporary use of automation, data processing, and exchange, as well as manufacturing techniques. Openness and interoperability between hardware, software, and services will be key in helping manufacturers transform how they create and operate solutions that promote productivity. 

NOTE: Author of the article has performed a webinar on the topic: Microsoft Azure services dedicated for IoT solutions. You can watch the replay here.

A key reason as to why Microsoft invests so heavily in IoT-related topics and technologies is to provide us with a unified way of communicating between hardware and software. Their latest focus is on enabling IoT devices to communicate with the cloud.

Developers and architects are constantly challenged in finding the most efficient, secure and standard ways for communicating with IoT devices. Also, an even bigger emerging problem is how to collect the vast volumes of data that they generate. Finally, the whole thing has to be cloud-enabled.  This is precisely what we are going to cover today.

 

What is Open Platform Configurations Unified Architecture (OPC UA)?

OPC Foundation is an organization that provides broad opportunities for interoperability in the field of automation by creating and maintaining an open communication standard. The standard outlines transfer of process data, alarm and event data, historical data and batch data to devices from different manufacturers.

The OPC UA standard is driven by the OPC Foundation mentioned above. Adapting machines to become compatible with OPC UA is a non-intrusive and cost-effective way to connect factory assets and adapters to field buses. The kits are available through a rich ecosystem of vendors (mentioned later on in the article).

Many also consider OPC UA the communication technology for Industry 4.0. We see this as a critical element of reaching the next level of connectivity in manufacturing facilities.

I encourage you to watch the short video below that describes the OPC UA concept:

Introduction to OPC UA

 

OPC UA support from Microsoft

Microsoft has a long-standing partnership with the OPC Foundation and is currently its number one open source contributor.

Microsoft is also the only cloud vendor that uses both OPC UA client-server connections and the new OPC UA publish-subscribe connections to the cloud and back.

There are other open source implementations of OPC UA that are not provided by Microsoft, in different languages, and with various licenses. The one from Microsoft is available as an open source project called Official OPC UA .Net Standard Stack and Samples from the OPC Foundation.

With reference to the Microsoft Azure cloud platform, it offers dedicated services for the Internet of Things (IoT):

Azure IoT Hub

The Azure IoT Hub ensures reliable and secure communication between IoT devices. It also establishes bi-directional communication between each device and the Azure cloud by way of protocols like MQTT, HTTPS and AMQP. Azure IoT Hub lets you send messages

  • from a device to the cloud – i.e: temperature values provided by a sensor connected to an IoT device, sent for analysis, and
  • from the cloud to a device – i.e: a message with software update payload.

 

Azure IoT Edge

Azure IoT Edge facilitates the movement of cloud analytics and custom business logic to IoT devices. Such a device can then process logic directly without pushing data to the cloud.

 

The Azure IoT Edge runtime

The runtime enables custom logic and cloud logic on IoT Edge devices. It is located on the device and it executes management and communication operations. This can include maintaining Azure IoT Edge security standards on the device, installing and updating workloads or facilitating communication between the device and the cloud.

 

Module

IoT Edge modules are units that consist of custom logic (for instance to analyze temperature) or cloud logic (like Azure Functions, Azure Stream Analytics, and Azure Machine Learning). The Azure Container Registry stores these modules as Docker containers.

When a module is being deployed on a device, the IoT Hub contacts the Azure IoT Edge runtime. This, in turn, pulls the image from the Azure Container Registry and starts running it.

 

IoT Hub

The Azure IoT Edge runtime connects to Azure IoT Hub to facilitate communication between the Edge device and the cloud. Therefore, if data has to be pushed to the cloud, or a new module needs to be deployed on the device, it is done through the IoT Hub.

 

OPC UA Standard Devices

Microsoft works closely with IoT device manufacturers to provide an easier way to deploy OPC UA standards and to simplify integration with Azure cloud services.

These devices are compatible with OPC UA standards and ready for production usage. They can be used as a proxy between factory fields and the Azure cloud. A full catalog of devices is available here.

An example starter device by Softing

The kit above enables connecting existing IoT devices to the Azure cloud. Said device then becomes a proxy between an internal setup and the cloud. The diagram below shows the flow of communication through an IoT gateway device:

Example architecture utilizing OPC UA standard

 

The IoT solution accelerators from Microsoft Connected Factory

The IoT solution accelerators are complete, ready-to-deploy solutions that implement a common IoT scenario provided by Microsoft.

Connected Factory sample dashboard

Currently, there are four solution accelerators available for you to deploy:

Let’s concentrate on the last one – Connected Factory, one of Microsoft’s IoT Solution Accelerators that leverages OPC UA standards and Azure cloud services.

Below is the logical architecture that includes key solution components:

Solution accelerator architecture (source)

Connected Factory enables connection with OPC UA server devices. It also demonstrates the use of a cloud-based application interacting with OPC UA server systems.

It is worth mentioning that the whole Connected Factory solution is secured by default. When adopting this solution, customers do not have to worry about security. Moreover, when you apply Microsoft Security Development Lifecycle (SDL), it constantly tests and verifies multiple security aspects. It also utilizes additional security services such as Microsoft Azure Security & Trust Center.

I encourage you to watch the video below called “Azure Industrial IoT in details by Erich Barnstedt, Microsoft” that explains the whole concept:

Introduction to Azure Industrial IoT

NOTE: Author of the article has performed a webinar on the topic: Microsoft Azure services dedicated for IoT solutions. You can watch the replay here.

Summary

We learned that Open Platform Configurations Unified Architecture (OPC UA) is a communication standard for the Internet of Things industry. We also learned that Microsoft has a long-standing partnership with the OPC Foundation, as its number one open source contributor.

We covered a few OPC UA standard devices that are ready for production. Then finally, I highlighted some Microsoft IoT solution accelerators that are complete, ready-to-deploy IoT solutions to implement a typical IoT scenario.

Of course, this is just the beginning. If you’re working on IoT solutions, contact me so we can discuss this topic further!

Key takeaways
  1. Industry 4.0 requires a unified communication standard for IoT devices.
  2. OPC UA is an open communication standard that allows the transfer of process, alarm and event data to devices from different manufacturers.
  3. IoT solution accelerators from Microsoft are complete, ready-to-deploy IoT solutions that implement a common IoT scenario.
  4. Microsoft Azure IoT Hub natively supports communication over the MQTT, AMQP, and HTTPS protocols.

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