People are often confused, sometimes deliberately (I think), by technologies–which ones work together, where are standards, what is competitive, and the like. I like to try to explain things clearly—often a challenge. I’m also generally agnostic. I’m not going to tell you what’s better. I don’t run a testing lab. But sometimes which is better for what application becomes obvious.

This is a story about OPC UA, MQTT, and Sparkplug. I’ve told pieces before. This is an update. First will be an update to the Sparkplug specification. Later I will have many updates about OPC UA from the Hannover Messe.

OPC UA is an international standard. It is also an information model. It’s one of those technologies that provides many benefits and options, but some people consider it too complex for some tasks. Searching for a lightweight messaging technology, Sparkplug was developed—at first by Arlen Nipper’s Cirrus Link and then turned over to open source Eclipse Foundation. Its drawback was, not being a standard, whoever wrote a “publish” message could not be assured that there would be anyone who could “subscribe” and interpret the message. By the way, both can  travel from node to node via MQTT which is a transport technology. Do not mix up these three things.

I turn now to a new development from the Eclipse Foundation regarding Sparkplug. Project Manager Frederic Desbiens explained enough of the guts of the tech to me to convince me of its usability. 

The Eclipse Foundation, one of the world’s largest open-source software foundations, in collaboration with its Sparkplug Working Group, announced June 7 at the ARC Industry Forum the launch of the Sparkplug Compatibility Program. This program is based on Sparkplug, an open source software specification that enables mission-critical operational technology (“OT”) clients to use industry standards like MQTT to seamlessly integrate data from their applications, sensors, devices, and gateways with most Industrial Internet Of Things (IIoT) Infrastructure.

“MQTT has already established itself as the ‘de facto’ standard for messaging transport in the IT and OT market sectors,” said Mike Milinkovich, executive director for the Eclipse Foundation. “However, it doesn’t specify the content of its payloads, making interoperability across the IIoT incredibly challenging. Sparkplug, acting as the HTML of the IIoT, is the industry’s best solution for solving this issue and is already in widespread use across multiple industries. Our new program lets industrial firms know if their vendors’ systems are Sparkplug compatible.” 

The Sparkplug Compatibility Program aims to provide integrators and end-users with an easy way to procure devices and software products that are fully compatible with the Sparkplug specification, thus ensuring their solutions will seamlessly integrate with the most common Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices and networks. To be included in the program, products will need to pass an open-source series of tests that validate conformance to the specification. These tests are based on the Sparkplug Technology Compatibility Kit (TCK). Products passing the TCK will be featured in the official list of compatible products, available on the Sparkplug Working Group’s website. In addition, licensees of the Sparkplug Compatible trademark will be able to promote compatibility, while also being recognizable in the marketplace through the use of the “Sparkplug Compatible” logo. 

Organizations who wish to participate in the compatibility program are invited to join the Eclipse Foundation and Sparkplug Working Group. Interested parties can find out more about the Sparkplug Working Group and the Sparkplug Compatibility Program.

By design, the MQTT specification does not dictate a Topic Namespace or any payload encoding. However, as the IIoT and other architectures leveraging the publisher/subscriber model are adopted by device OEMs in the industrial sector, having different Topic Namespace and payload encoding can inhibit interoperability for the end customer.

Sparkplug provides an open and freely available specification for how Edge of Network (EoN) gateways or native MQTT enabled end devices and MQTT Applications communicate bi-directionally within an MQTT Infrastructure. It is recognized that MQTT is used across a wide spectrum of application solution use cases, and an almost indefinable variation of network topologies. 

To that end the Sparkplug specification addresses the following components within an MQTT infrastructure: 

Sparkplug defines an OT-centric Topic Namespace 

Sparkplug defines an OT-centric Payload definition optimized for industrial process variables 

Sparkplug defines MQTT Session State management required by real-time OT SCADA systems

Quotes from Participating Organizations 

Foundations have a press protocol of adding comments from members of contributing organizations. Following are those comments.

Cirrus Link Solutions—“Cirrus Link was founded with the express purpose of providing MQTT centric software for Industrial Automation Solutions. As one of the co-inventors of MQTT I couldn’t be more pleased to be participating with the Eclipse Sparkplug Working group and see the launch of the Sparkplug Compatibility program. Having native devices and software solutions providing “Plug and Play” capabilities leveraging the power of an MQTT/Sparkplug infrastructure will be a disruptive change in the way industrial automation solutions are designed and implemented in the future.” Arlen Nipper, CTO at Cirrus Link Solutions

Chevron—“For a large enterprise like Chevron, Automation Engineers around the globe could be spending countless hours testing to see if something will work in their process control network or their IIoT network. Having the confidence that something will “just work” when you plug it in to your system via the Sparkplug compatibility program is a huge saver of time and money.” Todd Anslinger, IIoT & Automation Specialist at Chevron.

Inductive Automation—“We are definitely excited about the Sparkplug Compatibility Program and the experience of collaborating with this Eclipse Working Group. Since day one, Inductive Automation has supported an open, interoperable, and standards-based approach to industrial automation systems. The Sparkplug Specification expands Digital transformation opportunities across the industrial sector enabling deployments at scale and accelerating time to value. The entire ecosystem supporting IIoT evolution benefits from the launch of the Sparkplug Compatibility Program.” Don Pearson, Chief Strategy Officer, Inductive Automation

Opto 22— “For our customers, democratizing data in OT systems while securing legacy, brownfield devices is top of mind,” states Benson Hougland, VP Product Strategy with Opto 22. “MQTT with Sparkplug provides the tools they need to safely and simply share data among industrial operations, IT systems, and cloud platforms. Back in 1996, Opto 22 joined with Microsoft to develop the OPC specification—and later found the OPC Foundation—to solve the data share challenges of that decade. Today’s data-sharing problems have evolved. Our Sparkplug Working Group membership is our commitment to offer the most effective solutions now and ensure our customers’ success.”

HiveMQ—“Sparkplug is changing the OT industry for the better,” states Ian Skerret, VP of Marketing at HiveMQ. “It solves the data interoperability challenges many of our customers have rolling out new IIoT systems. HiveMQ is proud to participate in the collaborative community to make Sparkplug a success.”

Canary—“Our time-to-value when working with enterprise applications using Sparkplug brokers is mind blowing. Whether 10,000 tags or 2 million tags, historizing Sparkplug tags into a Canary Historian happens instantaneously,” said Jeff Knepper, executive director, Business Development, Canary.

The Eclipse Foundation provides our global community of individuals and organizations with a mature, scalable, and business-friendly environment for open source software collaboration and innovation. The Foundation is home to the Eclipse IDE, Jakarta EE, and over 400 open source projects, including runtimes, tools, and frameworks for cloud and edge applications, IoT, AI, automotive, systems engineering, distributed ledger technologies, open processor designs, and many others. The Eclipse Foundation is an international non-profit association supported by over 330 members, including industry leaders who value open source as a key enabler for their business strategies. 

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