Many engineers are looking for better ways to move data with fewer programming hours and headaches. Whereas OPC solved many problems leading to interoperability and data exchange, it also brings with it a higher overhead and programming load. For those searching for a something lighter, and also open source, along comes Sparkplug.

Cirrus Link authored the Sparkplug specification and provided it to the Eclipse Foundation, and several other companies support the group as founding members including Chevron, Canary Labs, HiveMQ, Inductive Automation, and ORing. Now additional companies are developing their products using Sparkplug for interoperability.

I recently received a paper authored by Arlen Nipper, president and CTO of Cirrus Link “Sparkplug: Open Source Technology to Bridge the OT-IT Gap”. He begins:

One of the primary pain points in Industrial IoT (IIoT) is disparate systems with both modern and legacy assets. Companies in any industry ranging from oil and gas to manufacturing can hardly imagine a world where they can choose any vendor’s hardware, plug it into their network, and have the hardware 100 percent self-discovered by their SCADA system and every application in the enterprise. True vendor interoperability for both data producers and data consumers is the vision, and new open-source technology may be the answer.

These days, everything relates back to digital transformation. Nipper write, Digital transformation requires devices in the field to be connected, with data made available that can speak the language of both OT and IT for improved business intelligence. In order for this type of digital transformation to be successful, data must be decoupled from a single application so it can flow to enterprise applications in a one-to-many approach.

From the first time I met Nipper, he has evangelized MQTT—a protocol he helped write—as an IT-friendly messaging protocol. It is lightweight. It is a publish-subscribe network protocol allowing for multiple data consumers.

MQTT is a messaging protocol. It does not describe the data traversing the wire (or air). While it provides an excellent engine for delivering IIoT data, MQTT doesn’t make the data interoperable across the enterprise. Thus, a new open source standard has been created and the IIoT industry should understand its importance for bridging the gap from OT to IT.

Nipper explains the next step:

The Internet expanded rapidly thanks to two open technologies – first HTTP, a data exchange protocol, and then HTML, which was used to define the data sent by HTTP. Both were needed. MQTT has needed its “HTML” for years in order for IIoT to explode in growth and adoption. In order to solve this problem of OT-IT interoperability, the Eclipse Sparkplug working group was launched in February 2020 to bring device communications standardization to IIoT.

The Eclipse Foundation states, “The Sparkplug Working Group was established to ‘improve the interoperability and scalability of IIoT solutions, and provide an overall framework for supporting Industry 4.0 for oil and gas, energy, manufacturing, smart cities, and other related industries.’ ”

Sparkplug is an open source software specification that provides MQTT clients with a framework to integrate data. The specification articulates three goals:

1. Define an MQTT Topic Namespace optimized for IIoT.

2. Define MQTT State Management to take advantage of continuous session awareness.

3. Define the MQTT Payload.

Sparkplug adds features including birth certificate and death certificate (session awareness) to help with contextualization of data.

Sparkplug makes this process fast, secure, and open standard so anyone can make use of the framework for MQTT interoperability. Many device manufacturers are supporting Sparkplug, which means it is built in natively on the device on the OT floor.

Nipper concludes:

With Sparkplug, machine learning and artificial intelligence applications can utilize the same standard interface for data without having to know and understand the entire OT environment. They can subscribe to the OT data, and use it immediately for IT functions.

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