Big data concepts have been embodied inside critical infrastructure companies for nearly two decades. Historian technologies have been used to save our environment and manage the most stringent critical infrastructure in the world. Tier 1 process historians have key features such as high compression, extremely fast data access, API access to proprietary stored data, standard out of the box interfaces for enterprise integration and the list goes on. The information systems “industry” attempted to utilise relational database like MS SQL, Oracle, MySQL and so forth to avoid the Automation vendor proprietary industrial offerings. Many tried these alternatives but all failed, unless they compromised on the performance or scope of data to be stored and retrieved. This was true from process plant to nuclear power plant. For the organisations that compromised on requirements, they quickly realised a limited data set means limited benefits to the enterprise in the longer term. The promise of interoperability a decade ago has delivered on function, but performance of such could only really be met using the process historian. The process historian never really received the accolades it deserved, mainly because of its unique complexity and sometimes poor implementation.
The key criteria for selecting a process historian still holds true today, if you are planning for an on premise solution. The alternative is to roll out internally hosted cloud based infrastructure, but why would you do that? Cloud based solutions do match up with the performance of process historians. Even though the technologies are fundamentally different, the material difference is the location. Move the solution or part of it to the cloud using IoT technologies and suddenly many of the core reasons for choosing a process historian disappear altogether. A whole industry revolving around process historians including industrial automation vendors and services providers (meaning us) have a vested interested in the longer life of the process historian.
What is the life expectancy of process historians? If the large automation vendors decide not to maintain their products or continue to invest in staying abreast with security, interfaces and so forth (as their support fees decline with lessoning interest) then that would be an important time to move on to more widely adopted technologies. On the other hand, if scalability with other cloud based infrastructure and in particular global management of operations is important, there may be impetus to get going sooner.
With the improvement of relational databases in the cloud, dozens of cloud based TSDBs (Time Series database bases) are readily available and dozens of standard interfaces and tools are available to the more general data consumer. The principle of locking down industrial data from the instrument to the boardroom is also up for debate.
With all this change, is anything going to remain? Process data is unique and highly technical. The planning for and management of process data needs to be done with consideration and transported intelligently. This is particularly important on low bandwidth infrastructure, however even with high bandwidth infrastructure the network design still needs to purify what is stored and manage the significant volumes of data. Higher speed systems also create “more bad data” if it is not conditioned appropriately.
The principle of managing process information with integrity will never change. In particular, for control systems with complex and customised process, the challenge will always remain to be defined, configured and delivered by a specialist. The collection and aggregation of good quality process data is important to stay. A device is not able to produce that outcome no matter who supplies the device in isolation to the system. In the past and until process historians disappear from view, process historian data collectors will continue to take away some of the headaches of this data aggregation. Process historians have good interfaces and adapters which collect information from standard SCADA and automation devices. As the world develops new devices and new processes emerge, investment in keeping pace will be challenging to justify.
If you were about to implement a new system, what would you recommend today? The first and most important question is this. Is the solution to be on premise now and forever? If so, stay with the process historian concept for the next technology cycle. If not, tread very carefully. Augmented solutions are being used in the world at large by military and critical infrastructure companies because the benefits are hard to refute. On demand storage. On demand numerical processing power. Unlimited client access and programmatic performance adjustments in real time that tune the user experience without having to buy a new license, next month. It’s time to think next generation because the end of the historian is inevitable due to its deep support cost and the challenge to keep pace.