Interoperating the industrial Internet

If we're going to build useful applications on top of the industrial Internet, we must ensure the components interoperate.

One of the most interesting points made in GE’s “Unleashing the Industrial Internet” event was GE CEO Jeff Immelt’s statement that only 10% of the value of Internet-enabled products is in the connectivity layer; the remaining 90% is in the applications that are built on top of that layer. These applications enable decision support, the optimization of large scale systems (systems “above the level of a single device,” to use Tim O’Reilly’s phrase), and empower consumers.

Given the jet engine that was sitting on stage, it’s worth seeing how far these ideas can be pushed. Optimizing a jet engine is no small deal; Immelt said that the engine gained an extra 5-10% efficiency through software, and that adds up to real money. The next stage is optimizing the entire aircraft; that’s certainly something GE and its business partners are looking into. But we can push even harder: optimize the entire airport (don’t you hate it when you’re stuck on a jet waiting for one of those trucks to push you back from the gate?). Optimize the entire air traffic system across the worldwide network of airports. This is where we’ll find the real gains in productivity and efficiency.

So it’s worth asking about the preconditions for those kinds of gains. It’s not computational power; when you come right down to it, there aren’t that many airports, aren’t that many flights in the air at one time. There are something like 10,000 flights in the air at one time, worldwide; and in these days of big data, and big distributed systems, that’s not a terribly large number. It’s not our ability to write software; there would certainly be some tough problems to solve, but certainly nothing as difficult as, say, searching the entire web and returning results in under a second.

But there is one important prerequisite for software that runs above the level of a single machine, and that’s interoperability. That’s something the inventors of the Internet understood early on; nothing became a standard unless at least two independent, interoperable implementations existed. The Interop conference didn’t start as a trade show, it started as a technical exercise where everyone brought their experimental hardware and software and worked on it until it played well together.

If we’re going to build useful applications on top of the industrial Internet, we must ensure, from the start, that the components we’re talking about interoperate. It’s not just a matter of putting HTTP everywhere. Devices need common, interoperable data representations. And that problem can’t be solved just by invoking XML: several years of sad experience has proven that it’s certainly possible to be proprietary under the aegis of “open” XML standards.

It’s a hard problem, in part because it’s not simply technical. It’s also a problem of business culture, and the desire to extract as much monetary value from your particular system as possible. We see the consumer Internet devolving into a set of walled gardens, with interoperable protocols but license agreements that prevent you from moving data from one garden into another. Can the industrial Internet do better? It takes a leap of faith to imagine manufacturers of industrial equipment practicing interoperability, at least in part because so many manufacturers have already developed their own protocols and data representations in isolation. But that’s what our situation demands. Should a GE jet engine interoperate with a jet engine from Pratt and Whitney? What would that mean, what efficiencies in maintenance and operations would that entail? I’m sure that any airline would love a single dashboard that would show the status of all its equipment, regardless of vendor. Should a Boeing aircraft interoperate with Airbus and Bombardier in a system to exchange in-flight data about weather and other conditions? What if their flight computers were in constant communication with each other? What would that enable? Leaving aviation briefly: self-driving cars have the potential to be much safer than human-driven cars; but they become astronomically safer if your Toyota can exchange data directly with the BMW coming in the opposite direction. (“Oh, you intend to turn left here? Your turn signal is out, by the way.”)

Extracting as much value as possible from a walled garden is false optimization. It may lead you to a local maximum in profitability, but it leaves the biggest gains, the 90% that Immelt talked about in his keynote, behind. Tim O’Reilly has talked about the “clothesline paradox“: if you dry your clothes on a clothesline, the money you save doesn’t disappear from the economy, even though it disappears from the electric company’s bottom line. The economics of walled gardens is the clothesline paradox’s evil twin. Building a walled garden may increase local profitability, but prevents larger gains, Immelt’s 90% gains in productivity, from existing. They never reach the economy.

Can the industrial Internet succeed in breaking down walled gardens, whether they arise from business culture, legacy technology, or some other source? That’s a hard problem. But it’s the problem the industrial Internet must solve if it is to succeed.


This is a post in our industrial Internet series, an ongoing exploration of big machines and big data. The series is produced as part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and GE.

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  • Alex Tolley

    A question you might want to ask yourself is whether optimization impacts system robustness. In other arenas, e,g, supply chain management and banking, that high levels of integration and optimization had led to system failure.
    I would also ask whether interoperability might lead to increased exposure to deliberate attack on a complete system, as the firewall of decoupling has disappeared.

    Regarding the jet engine to air transport analogy, perhaps a better way to go is to rethink the components, rather than optimizing the existing ones. In this particular case, tele-presence might trump flight as the better way to handle face-to-face contact.