Industrial devices 'talk' on the Net
March 19, 1999
by David Essex
(IDG) -- The Internet is increasingly serving as a low-cost network for industrial machines and instruments to "talk" directly to each other without human intervention. It's fueling the growth of a small industry in so-called thin servers and universal device drivers that allow even long-in-tooth hardware to be online and browser-accessible.
Case in point: The MSS family of universal thin servers from Lantronix, which are boxes that connect almost any device with a serial port to ethernet and Token Ring networks running the Internet's TCP/IP protocol. MSS controls video cameras used by the California Department of Transportation to monitor highway traffic. The U.S. Border Patrol uses the cameras to spot illegal border crossings. Food processing companies use the technology to track inventory, such as the number of Hostess Twinkies stored in a warehouse, or data such as the weight of popcorn bags rolling off an assembly line, according to Lantronix.
Perhaps one of the more unusual MSS applications regulates cattle feed in stockyards. Cattle wear radio-frequency ID tags in their ears that relay data over a TCP/IP network as they step on a scale. By the time the cattle put their heads in an trough to eat, the system has distributed the proper mix of feed.
"It doesn't matter what you put in your device as long as it speaks IP and browser," says Fred Thiel, Lantronix president.
Until recent years, industrial devices had proprietary network interfaces that required a PC and expensive leased lines for network communications, says James Staten, senior industry analyst at Dataquest. "That's fairly tedious and has been a bit of a problem for people who want to move from one manufacturer to another," Staten says.
Now, a small number of vendors are finding success making embedded microprocessors, hardware, and software that use TCP/IP, HTML, and XML for non-proprietary communication and control. Companies working in this field include Dallas Semiconductor, NetSilicon, Agranet, and Hewlett-Packard's test and measurement division.
Sun's new Jini technology is another step in this open standards direction. "It's a universal device driver for putting anything on the network," Staten says. So far, however, it's been used mostly for controlling printers.
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