Growing IIoT Challenges Require Smarter MQTT

Growing IIoT Challenges Require Smarter MQTT
Growing IIoT Challenges Require Smarter MQTT

Since the introduction of Industrial IoT (IIoT) and Industry 4.0, we’ve seen an upsurge in interest in the MQTT protocol. Initially developed as a way to send data from field devices to a central location, MQTT is efficient, quick and secure. It seems ideally positioned for connecting operational technology (OT) systems of all types to corporate information technology (IT) systems and the cloud.

Yet, as IIoT applications grow in size and complexity and projects move from pilot studies to large-scale, enterprise-wide applications, engineers are counting on MQTT to connect not only sensors and actuators in the field. Edge devices, SCADA systems, IoT gateways and more are being linked to various tools on the IT side—historians, data lakes, AI engines and other analytical instruments. This broader range of applications presents challenges to the MQTT protocol that was intentionally kept simple to ensure speed and flexibility.

Now, instead of each connection carrying data from a single device, MQTT is being called on to send collections of data values. Where once all devices may have been identical, today’s complex systems often connect a variety of devices over different data formats. The simple, direct security model of device-to-client is not sufficient anymore when networks need to be isolated using DMZs, requiring multiplehop connections. A new specification, Sparkplug B, was introduced to address some of these challenges, and yet there are ways that it, too, can be enhanced.

Get smarter

These challenges demand that MQTT get smarter. By design, MQTT is a transport protocol, like a postal service carrying letters. The service doesn’t know or care what’s in the letters. But what if we make the MQTT broker smart? What if we give it the ability to read and understand the messages it carries? It could then parse them and handle them more intelligently. And what if the broker could communicate with the senders and receivers themselves? It could then inform them of network status or which clients might have disconnected.

This kind of smart broker would be invaluable for the growing demands being put on MQTT. Let’s look in more detail at what’s needed and how making MQTT smarter can help it meet the challenges of IIoT and Industry 4.0.

Data collection

For many IoT and OT-to-IT applications, the simple device-to-broker MQTT connection is not sufficient. On large-scale systems with hundreds or thousands of connected devices, the data streams might need to be consolidated into a few or even one MQTT connection. This is particularly true for cloud services that accept only one client connection or that charge on a per-connection basis. And in many scenarios, MQTT is being used alongside other industrial protocols, such as OPC UA.

A smart MQTT broker can collect and aggregate incoming data messages, parse them and translate various MQTT message types into one. And if it can read data in other common protocols like OPC or Modbus, it is not too much of a stretch to be able to convert that data into the same MQTT message type as well.

Data consistency

In a real-time industrial system, data consistency is critical. An operator monitoring an HMI or SCADA system needs to know exactly what’s happening on the physical device. Data that’s stale or out of correct time sequence can lead to incorrect decisions. Also, any disconnects or network irregularities must be known. A smart MQTT broker leverages its ability to parse messages, along with smart message queueing, to ensure data consistency.

A smart MQTT broker can collect and aggregate incoming data messages from MQTT and other protocols, parse them, and translate them into one MQTT stream.

  • Smart message queueing: Real-time systems need smart message queueing in order to handle message overload. This happens when a data producer, like a sensor or other device, sends data faster than a consumer can receive it. A chronic overload requires the broker to drop messages. A smart MQTT broker can implement an intelligent message queue that examines the message content and ensures that the latest value of every data item is delivered, even when earlier values are dropped. This keeps data at the consumer consistent with the physical reality of the producer.
  • Latest value: Having the very latest value of the data is critical in an industrial system. Suppose, for example, in a burst of activity a pump is switched on and off many times, with the final position being “OFF.” If that final MQTT message gets dropped by the broker, the HMI or SCADA system will show the pump as “ON.” This kind of inconsistent data can lead to costly errors and system malfunctions. A regular MQTT broker without smart message queueing may drop that final, latest value, whereas a broker with smart message queueing ensures that it gets delivered.
  • Time order: Time order is preserved in a single MQTT message topic, but not necessarily among multiple topics. Events coming from different devices that occur in the order A then B then C could be delivered to an application as C then B then A, or any other ordering, which is an error in many industrial-control use cases. A smart broker can preserve time order as it converts messages to other protocols for transmission to control systems or retransmission across a network.
  • Connection status: Regular MQTT brokers do not have a way to indicate that a data source is disconnected. The consuming application cannot tell the difference between an old value from a sensor that has failed or a current value that has simply not changed recently. The “last will” mechanism in MQTT designed to deal with this requires unreasonable levels of coupling between the producers and consumers of data, resulting in duplicate configuration and increased integration and maintenance costs.

A smart broker that monitors the condition of the data producers and the network can assign a quality code to each message and update it with each value change. This information can be included in the outgoing MQTT message. As a result, data consumers have some way to tell why a value is not changing.

Data security

Industry security experts and government agencies recommend isolating networks for connecting OT and IT systems. The preferred approach is by using a DMZ. NIST document SP-800-82 sums up it up like this: “The most secure, manageable and scalable control network and corporate network segregation architectures are typically based on a system with at least three zones, incorporating one or more DMZs.”

These three zones are the control zone (OT), the corporate zone (IT), and the DMZ in the middle. Using a DMZ ensures that there is no direct link between corporate networks and control networks, and that only known and authenticated actors can enter the system at all. The SP-800-82 document describes the value and use of firewalls to separate these zones and to ensure that only the correct data passes from one to the other.

Multi-hop daisy chain Implementing data flow through a DMZ is problematic for MQTT, as this kind of connection typically requires two or more servers linked together one after the other in a daisy chain. The Quality of Service (QoS) guarantees in MQTT cannot propagate through the chain, making data at the ends of the chain unreliable.

One reliable solution is to convert the MQTT message into a different format that can be passed over the network from server to server until it reaches its destination. The device producing the MQTT data would be connected to an instance of a smart broker. The broker, capable of doing data conversions, would pass the data, along with its quality information, via a secure protocol to a second instance of the smart broker, which would convert the data back into MQTT.

Ideally, the protocol used would offer SSL encryption, preferably with support for the most recent versions, such as TLS 1.2 and TLS 1.3, as well as use and enforce server certificates. Also, the smart broker should be able to replicate the ability of an MQTT client to send data outbound from a firewall without opening any inbound ports. It is critical that this valuable security feature of MQTT be retained.

Sparkplug B enhancements

The Sparkplug B specification for MQTT was introduced to resolve interoperability issues between vendors by defining how data is sent and received. Sparkplug B classifies MQTT clients as either edge of network (EoN) devices that produce data or as applications that consume data. Each Sparkplug B device produces messages of various kinds, such as a BIRTH message to show that it has come online, DATA messages for sending data, or a DEATH message when it goes offline. Any Sparkplug B application that is online receives these messages and is thus kept informed of which data is coming from which device.

All of the smart broker capabilities discussed so far apply to a Sparkplug B-based system. Additionally, a smart MQTT broker may provide other features to further enhance Sparkplug B connectivity.

  • Synchronizing all applications: Because it is aware of all connections, a smart broker can synthesize a BIRTH message for each connected device whenever a new application comes online. This allows that application to receive DATA messages from all currently connected devices, eliminating issues related to start-up order. The recent Sparkplug 3.0 specification adds a mechanism for an application to announce its presence such that EoN devices will transmit BIRTH messages, eliminating the need for this function in the broker.
  • Responding to errors: In addition to its ability to identify out-oforder or lost MQTT messages, a smart broker should also be able to automatically disconnect a Sparkplug B device when these kinds of errors occur, causing it to reconnect. This would cause the device to re-send its BIRTH (start-up) message, which will resynchronize all receiving applications, thus maintaining a single version of the truth.
  • Resolving failed writes to devices: Another useful feature would be to monitor all write requests from applications to devices to ensure that the specified data value was written on the device. If the smart broker detects that the value on the device did not change, it would force the device to disconnect, causing it to retransmit its BIRTH message. This would resynchronize all applications listening to that device and is another way to maintain a single version of the truth.
  • Adding data quality information: For systems that need to convert Sparkplug B data to other protocols, a smart broker could add quality information. For example, when converting Sparkplug B data to OPC, it could add OPC data quality. When a Sparkplug B connection is lost, the smart broker can update the data qualities of all related OPC items, alerting downstream applications to the loss of connectivity.

A smarter future

As valuable as MQTT is for device-to-server data communication, it needs to get smarter to take on current and future challenges of OT/ IT, Industry 4.0 and Industrial IoT. A smart MQTT broker can collect data from multiple incoming message types, and even other protocols. It can ensure data consistency over the entire path of the message from data producer to data consumer, where the consumer always has the latest value with an indicator of data quality. A well-designed smart broker can also be used to securely connect MQTT data producers and consumers across DMZs and other multi-hop network configurations. These advantages and more can strengthen Sparkplug B implementations as well. For today’s challenges and those that lie ahead, MQTT must get smarter.

Images courtesy of Skkynet

This feature comes from the ebook AUTOMATION 2023 Volume 3: IIoT & Industry 4.0.

About The Author

Xavier Mesrobian is the vice president, sales and marketing, at Skkynet Cloud Systems, which allows companies to securely acquire, monitor, control, visualize, and consolidate live process data in-plant or over insecure networks with no VPNs or changes to IT policy required.

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