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Use the Cloud for Your Alarm Management System

August
2016

Most engineers recognize the need for alarm management systems. What you might not know, however, is that cloud computing can make those systems less expensive, more effective, and easier to implement and maintain.

Alarm management is a necessary tool for companies in the chemical process industries (CPI) to maintain safe and effective production. It has become even more imperative with the adoption of the modern software-based distributed control system (DCS), which has enabled chemical producers to add alarms without significant cost, effort, or justification. Unfortunately, in this environment, it is easy for operators to be flooded with alarms, many of which are not important. To minimize alarm floods, alarm management systems typically track key performance indicators (KPIs), such as the alarm rate over time and peak alarm rates, and assemble these KPIs in reports and charts to help companies analyze and improve the performance of their alarm systems.

Recognizing the increased importance of alarm management, several organizations have published standards that provide guidance on the design, implementation, operation, and management of alarm systems. These include the International Society for Automation (ISA) Standard ISA-18.2 (1) and the International Electro-technical Commission (IEC) Standard IEC-62682 (2). A previous CEP article (3) presented an overview of the ISA-18.2 standard and how it can be used to eliminate common alarm problems.

This article discusses the use of cloud computing to optimize your alarm management system. It discusses the advantages and disadvantages (Table 1) of cloud-computing tools over conventional in-house approaches to alarm management, and it identifies data analysis tools, software, and storage technologies to consider when implementing a cloud-based alarm management system. It also provides an overview of a prototype cloud-based alarm management system that was evaluated with customer data from a refinery.

Table 1. Cloud computing offers several benefits for alarm management systems, but it also has limitations.
Advantages Limitations
  • Powerful analytics tools are available that use the computing capabilities of the cloud.
  • It provides ubiquitous access via browsers, tablets, and smartphones.
  • It is based on pay-per-use models, thereby eliminating high up-front investments.
  • Chemical companies can focus on their core competencies and need not care about installing and running the system.
  • New software features and updated templates become available without tedious software updates.
  • It supports cooperation between centralized experts and plant personnel.
  • Data security is a concern, but not a major issue; some level of trust from users is required.
  • Some (minimal) local hardware and configuration effort is required.
  • The reliability of the cloud and the network provider needs to be sufficiently high.
  • Cloud deployments are highly standardized and offer limited flexibility for custom solutions.

Cloud computing

Cloud computing is more than just web-based software applications. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines cloud computing as a model that enables ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) (4). Cloud computing has five characteristics: on-demand self-service; resource pooling; broad network access; rapid elasticity; and measured service. The following generic scenario illustrates these characteristics.

Consider a chemical producer that uses a cloud-based alarm management system. The alarm manager can request instantaneous access to the cloud application (on-demand self-service) that also serves other companies and users (resource pooling) via the internet (broad network access). The manager employs services such as analytics tools without any observable capacity limitations (elasticity). And, the user will typically pay only for the consumed resources (measured service) rather than making an upfront investment in infrastructure and individual software licenses. Cloud computing eliminates capital expenditure, which makes cloud services particularly attractive to organizations that shy away from risky investments.

Although cloud computing has benefits, it also raises concerns about security. The cloud infrastructure provides shared access to resources. Companies are therefore concerned that other users could gain access to their proprietary plant information. This is a legitimate fear. However, common methods and tools...

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