Tips & Trends: Change (aka unscrambling IT, OT and IoT)

-January 23, 2015

Editor’s Note:  While this may at first blush look like an ad for a company—it speaks to a bigger issue and what will most likely become a trend. Does the footprint you’ve used for years still fit your IoT shoes? Probably not.


A couple years ago I gave quite a few talks around the theme of what happens when Moore and Metcalf collide. The answer, some would say, is the “Internet of Things.” Maybe, but that’s wrapping it all up just a bit too conveniently and misses some important points.

I’ve personally been in this M2M communications game for over two decades now, joining B&B on it’s 10th birthday in 1991. The start of B&B Electronics was unassuming enough. Shortly before the birth of the PC, B&B Electronics began manufacturing serial widgets--widgets that helped tame the serial port, connecting one kind of equipment to another. Controllers, instrumentation, computers – it was the Wild, Wild West of M2M communications. At the core of all of it was serial communications, based on loose sets of standards and practices.  We developed converter after converter, putting them on deck cards (remember those?) and the ubiquitous B&B Electronics catalog.

As an engineer designing many of those products I used to find it both enjoyable and hugely distracting to take calls, lots of them, from engineers who needed help sorting out the reliable connectivity of a hodgepodge of equipment. In fact it was taking up so much of my time that I started writing down everything I’d learned and posting it on our fledgling web site where dozens of B&B articles, white papers and application notes were consumed in enormous quantities. Hundreds of thousands of engineers discovered B&B on something new, called the Search Engine. Alta Vista, InfoSeek and the Yahoo directory became go-to information sources for engineers, and nobody had more content on M2M communications than B&B.

So a simple strategy of writing things down so people would stop calling with the same questions launched a 2nd decade of growth of B&B. Engineers everywhere came to regard B&B Electronics as the definitive expert on how to reliably connect machines together and make them talk. Later, I learned that marketers called that “information marketing” – a great way to win the hearts of engineers who valued expert, time saving advice as well as great products. But all I was trying to do was free up some time so I could spend more time in the lab and less on the phone.

While the operations world was busy getting machines to talk to each other, the IT world was making some astounding progress. Networking standards were developed and adopted. In short order a crimp tool and knowledge of IP addresses could do some amazing things for you if you were connecting computers.  Growth of those networks exploded, cost points fell to amazingly low levels. We all started to benefit from the power of Metcalf’s law.

But, the operations people cast off Ethernet like a smelly gym sock. Hundreds of people told me “we’ll never use Ethernet on the plant floor”  - it was too flimsy, lacked determinism, not reliable…blah, blah, blah.

Some of that was true. Some of it, however, was sheer protectionism. Vendors of automation equipment were scared to death that the IT world would take over, so they dug in hard, arming themselves with hugely expensive, proprietary standards designed explicitly to keep both IT vendors and IT personnel out of the operations department.   It was neither a noble nor productive battle.

It took awhile, but eventually Moore and Metcalf won. If you’re trying to unscramble what all this “Internet of Things” hype is all about, more than anything it’s about the beginning of the end of that great wall of division between IT and OT (operational technology). That’s going to have a profound impact on everyone, and we’re just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg.

So a couple years back, before we’d heard of the “IoT” – B&B saw the writing on the wall. Knowing that laws like Moore and Metcalf are powerful and unforgiving to those who shun them, we started thinking hard about what this new frontier of IT and OT convergence was going to look like.

In short, we got busy designing the new B&B to recognize the end of the Wild West of M2M, and the emergence of IT/OT integration into the industrial IoT:
  • We stopped talking to our customer base via catalogs.
  • We started working with distribution partners.
  • We began developing “intelligence at the edge” technologies, integrating features that reduce system costs and speed up deployment.
  • We hired software engineers. (We used to average about 1 or 2 software engineers for every hardware engineer. Today that’s more like 6 or 8 to 1.)
  • We recognized that IT/OT convergence is much more of a community effort than M2M, and established partnerships with key players ranging from SeeControl to IBM – partners that provide software platforms and tools to enable large scale converged solutions.

And today, in recognition of this new world and all of the changes we’ve made to better serve this emerging new market, we’ve changed our name.

B&B Electronics is now B+B SmartWorx. We’re still B+B, we’re still focused on rugged, reliable, resilient products. Those products today are intelligent, solutions-enabling converters, gateways, sensing platforms.

It’s been gruelingly hard work. It’s also been energizing. It’s brought out some of the best work I’ve ever seen from our B+B SmartWorx team, and it’s attracted new top talent - people who share our vision of the future and recognize the opportunity to be part of the most exciting technology inflection point in our careers.

And just like back in 1994, I look forward to talking with so many of you, helping you through this new world of IT and OT convergence, causing me once again to write down what I’ve learned and share it with both engineers and business leaders everywhere.

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