Huawei’s IoT vision for the energy sector
ITP.net talks to the Chinese firm’s Internet of Things guru
Huawei's Enterprise unit has been trying to persuade the global oil and gas sector that its very survival will hinge upon adoption of the digital oilfield. ITP.net joined the Chinese company at its Global Energy Industry Summit 2015, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where the company educated attendees on its solutions in the field of energy-sector ICT.
Huawei's portfolio in the area stretches from back-office to the oil field itself and encompasses technology solutions such as unified communications, big data, LTE networks, enterprise mobility, cloud, machine-to-machine and high-performance computing.
"It is time now for enterprise mobility," declares Mohammed Al Dhamen, chairman, IEEE Saudi Arabia Section, Huawei, and former head of ICT projects for Saudi Aramco, in a presentation to delegates.
"Right now if you want to get a reading from one of your wells, you have to send someone to do it manually, and they have to travel in pairs; they cannot travel alone for security reasons... Enterprise mobility is the need of the hour."
Al Dhamen cites a survey of mobility specialists in which 89% of respondents stated the belief that enterprise mobility solutions could "revolutionise" the oil and gas sector.
Jerry Ji, president, Energy Industry, Huawei Enterprise, catalogues a number of solutions deployed in regions as diverse as the GCC, Norway and China, from unified communications to BYOD. Some employ the use of sensors in pipelines and other infrastructure that relay information in real time to decision-makers.
"The Europeans call it ‘Industry 4.0'; the Americans call it the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution'; in China, we call it ‘Made in China 2025'," Ji says.
Instead of other more common terms, like SCADA, M2M and IoT, Ji characterises the merging of software and machinery as IT-OT (information technology-operational technology) convergence and says he expects the Internet of Things to be managing 100bn connections by 2025.
Dr Hasem Nasr, senior advisor, Digital Oilfield, Kuwait Oil Company, is considered, across the sector, a leading specialist in the digital oilfield. Nasr warns of an average cost of almost $42 per barrel in production costs, in an industry where oil prices are hovering close to that level.
"We are almost at the point where the entire industry is losing money," he says. "How many wells in the world today are there [for which] we know daily production [figures]? Less than 10%. You should be shocked by [that] number."
In Nasr's parting comments he tells delegates: "Go digital or perish."
Behind Huawei's digital-oilfield concept lies its overall vision for the Internet of Things (IoT), an industry paradigm that has become increasingly standardised among major tech vendors. Swift Liu, as president of Huawei Enterprise's Switch and Enterprise Communications unit, is one of the company's key custodians of IoT design and implementation. ITP.net sat down with him during the conference to learn how Huawei is approaching the devices era.
"Huawei so far doesn't develop sensors, but we develop the communications modules in sensors and meters," Liu says. "Huawei focuses on the IT and CT areas. So we don't [make the sensors themselves]. In the future, maybe [we will]."
Liu's business unit encompasses the enterprise network (switches, routers, Wi-Fi), unified communications and collaboration (video-conferencing, video surveillance, VoIP) and cyber security.
Liu points out that Huawei bought Symantec's 49% stake in Hong Kong-based Huawei Symantec Technologies in 2012, bringing a four-year partnership to an end. The security venture was then merged with Liu's business unit.
Huawei has been focusing heavily on IoT of late. This May, in Beijing, the company held its Network Congress. About 7,000 Huawei customers and partners attended. At the congress, Lui says, the "most important solution presented" was Huawei's IoT suite.
"The infrastructure of our IoT solution is similar to other vendors," Liu explains. "It [consists of] four layers. The first is the application layer. Huawei doesn't do applications because different vertical industries need [different] applications and some need very [specialised] technologies."
Huawei works mainly in the second and third layers of IoT. The second layer, called "platform", provides functions to manage connections, networks, meters and sensors. The platform layer also provides APIs (application program interfaces) that allow application-layer solutions to bolt into the overall framework.
"The third layer is ‘network'," says Liu. "Most [functions in this layer] are similar to a traditional layer, except for one key thing: the IoT gateway. The IoT gateway has to work within [extreme environments] like very high temperatures, very low temperatures or high-vibration [locales]."
The last layer is the "sensors" layer. Huawei's only contribution to this layer is the manufacture of communications modules.
The company also provides a real-time open-source operating system for IoT. In the past four years, Huawei has hired about 20 specialists, described by Liu as "the top talent in operating systems, globally", to develop the system, called LiteOS.
"We reduced the OS from more than 10m [lines of] source-code to just 10,000; a very, very small OS," Liu claims. "This means our partners and customers can install it in sensors, controllers and meters. And the response time is [very low], because IoT requires a quick response; a slow [reaction] may bring disaster."
LiteOS is a free, open-source operating system designed specifically for IoT. Its existence suggests loft ambitions from Huawei in the IoT segment. But IoT adoption in heavy industry, and particularly in the energy and utilities sectors, is beset by the spectre of cyber threats. A number of high-profile attacks in the sector, particularly the 2012 crippling of Saudi Aramco and Qatar's RasGas, have led to reticence on the part of the industry's ICT professionals to delve to deeply or quickly into ICT.
So what is Huawei's approach to the problem?
"Huawei has been investing in network and cyber security for more than 10 years," Liu explains. "[We began with] firewall, but now our portfolio includes NG [next-generation] firewall, IPS [intrusion prevention system], IDS [intrusion detection system], anti-DDoS [distributed denial of service] and anti-APT [advanced persistent threats] and sandboxing."
Huawei has also developed a solution, where it uses big data to analyse the whole network.
"We focus on the network layer, but we have to enter the application layer because the next generation of firewall has already integrated that layer; it [monitors all] four layers," says Liu. "But Huawei doesn't provide anti-virus software. [Today it is all about] APT solutions. And Huawei is one of the few vendors in the world that can offer anti-APT solutions."
In 2013 the company launched a "next-generation network solution", called Agile Network, which includes cyber-security elements.
"The idea is, in the past we cared about a single point, or maybe just several nodes in the network," Liu explains. "But if you think like that, some people will knock your door; you open the door; this guy decides, ‘I knocked the wrong door'; you close the door [and think everything] is okay. But when you see the whole network, you find this guy is knocking on everyone's door. So this is advanced persistent threats."
The number of connected devices predicted for the coming decades is formidable for any vendor seeking to provide coherent IoT solutions. But with a broad portfolio that targets key verticals, focuses on infrastructure and embraces cyber-security, Huawei is positioning itself to mount a strong challenge to Cisco, Intel and others.