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Real-time computing: Gateway to the Internet of Things?

Lamont Wood | Aug. 27, 2015
The next big computer trend may involve precision rather than speed.

"The jitter on something like (standard) Linux is hundreds of milliseconds," adds Dubal. (NI product literature says the jitter for NI Linux Real-Time is comparable to that for other NI real-time environments.)

The Internet of Things

But the big trend, sources agree, is that (as with the rest of the computer industry), prices are coming down while systems are becoming more powerful. In the case of real-time systems, that means inexpensive and powerful controllers, optimized for machines interfacing with other machines, are arriving just as the Internet of Things begins to need them.

"The cost of computing and connectivity hardware has dropped by roughly a factor of five in the last 10 years," Viewpoint's Campbell notes, largely driven by the consumerization of smartphone components.

He compares the potential results to that of inexpensive PCs in the early 1980s, which revolutionized office work. Likewise, the combination of data acquisition, local analysis and control hardware could revolutionize manufacturing industries, Campbell says.

Customer expectations have also risen. "Years ago they came for the operating system and the drivers," says QNX's Courville. "Now they want the operating system, middleware, the drivers, applications and connectivity. And they want all the attributes they are used to in a real-time environment, and want it to work as expected at all times."

Shaun Kirby, chief technology officer for Cisco's Internet of Things consulting service, refers to the new environment as a "brave new world" where "tools are making systems more accessible to non-professionals, and you don't need years of training to hack something together. Anyone with a good idea can do an Internet of Things solution."

Indeed, the gear lapper mentioned earlier went from concept to beta testing in six months, thanks to availability of powerful off-the-shelf systems, notes Campbell. Chiefly, the firm relied on a NI CompactRIO, which includes a controller, a field-programmable gate array, an RTOS, real-time programming languages (NI's LabVIEW), a selection of I/O modules for interfacing to other devices and an expansion chassis.

Generally, the application software on a real-time device is highly customized by the integrator, explains Real-Time's Barnett, and some high-end systems like an airplane or an MRI machine might have millions of lines of code. However, these days, above the application there is often another layer that presents a graphical user interface, and it's usually based on off-the-shelf packages, he adds.

Challenges and concerns

But there will be roadblocks on the way to the revolution, notes Richard Soley, executive director of the Industrial Internet Consortium. The first is lack of interface standards.

"Programmable logic controllers speak about two dozen protocols; every manufacturer did their own," Soley says. His organization is working on interoperability standards, but the process has barely begun, he explains.


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