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When Information Roams Freely: An Interview with Rockwell ThinManager’s Tom Jordan

September 23, 2019

Interview with Tom Jordan, Marketing Lead, ThinManager August 30, 2019

 

Nymi has a partnership with Rockwell, and we had an opportunity to interview Tom Jordan, who leads marketing for ThinManager. ThinManager is a software solution for thin client management and industrial mobility that can deliver the right data to the right person in the right place.

 

Drivers for thin clients

Nymi: What makes a customer come to you? Is it a common pain point or is it more a vision?

Jordan: I think it’s a combination of both. In the early days, and it’s still a driving factor, PC problems were the main reason. A lot of our customers work in environments that are less than desirable for a computer to reside in, with particulates in the air, high humidity, vibration, etc. So a thin client device with no hard drive, no OS or moving parts like fans, and nothing to fail lasts longer.

Now the pendulum has swung more to vision: virtualization, or centralizing all applications onto just a few servers. Then they are left with this challenge of how to re-deploy this newly centralized content back out to all the end users. Thin clients become the end device of choice, because they really need no maintenance. ThinManager allows you to deploy that content back out to end devices, based on the user who is authenticated to that device at any given time. So, for instance, an operator and a supervisor who authenticate to the very same terminal will see different content. That can be additive or completely separate sessions, based on how you set it up.

Nymi: Have you seen differences in specific issues or drivers for the pharmaceutical industry?

Jordan: The authentication ability is important to them. But mainly, we help with regulatory compliance. When a PC goes down, it requires a stack of paperwork and days of administrative oversight. With ThinManager, it takes one piece of paper, a few minutes and almost no administrative oversight. That’s because nothing changes on the end terminal. All the sessions, applications and data viewed on the end user terminals are still on the centralized servers. So the paperwork is reduced to almost nothing. That’s a big benefit our pharmaceutical customers report. And it holds true on mobile devices too. We are big in water/wastewater, and when pharmaceutical saw how well it worked in those areas, engineers in the plant saw they could use it other places too.

 

Technology Plays

Nymi: With the many new technologies and tools, how do people decide what makes the most sense for their factories?

Jordan: Across the board, people are grabbing new technologies that allow them to do more with less people. They are not necessarily taking people off the payroll; they need technology to make up for the shortfall of qualified human capital. Some customers swear by our shadowing capability, where you can shadow any terminal from another. This technology allows them to share information, troubleshoot and help each other faster, quicker, clearer. You can do more with fewer people when the information can freely roam about the manufacturing facility.

Don’t confuse the sharing of data and big data as the issue of the day. We argue that data is meaningless unless it’s in context – and that is what applications do. ThinManager allows people to access applications, to get the right data to the right person at the right place at the right time so it’s meaningful.

Nymi: Are you finding that biometrics are a selling point, or a problem?

Jordan: That’s an important question. I think we are still in the early days of this. I’m seeing half and half. There are some privacy issues and regional laws that cause concern.

But the bigger issue is about usability. Not just something that works, but something that allows them to do what they really need to do and not think about the technology. The Nymi band is an excellent way for someone to authenticate to the network and receive their information without worrying about what they are wearing on their body, hands or head. The Nymi band also will work with proximity. That is very useful.

Security is a big issue and biometrics is the single best way to ensure someone is who they say they are. Using some sort of biological marker. I think eventually that wins the day.

 

Authentication and Security

Nymi: What role does authentication of each user play?

Jordan: Authentication is one of the most important issues. One thing we can do now with a device like the Nymi band that has NFC – is give authenticated users information based on role in the plant.  Having something that consistently and persistently authenticates a person like the Nymi band allows ThinManager to deliver or deny delivery of information based on that.

Another thing we are looking at doing is; if an alarm gets set off, use location to send the alarm to the closest ThinManager user who might be able to handle that problem. If the first person does not respond in a set amount of time, we alert the next person. As 5G becomes more prolific, we believe that will be where authentication and biometrics really take off. At that point, tracking everything in real-time may be the differentiator between those who are super-productive vs. stay stagnant.

Nymi: Cybersecurity seems to be an ongoing challenge at this intersection of IT and OT. How can companies protect themselves?

Cybersecurity is huge; it is about everybody and everything. Here are some of ThinManager’s security angles:

  • Authentication: Identify if this is the person, and what role they have and what application access we’ll give them.
  • Devices: No one’s going to steal a thin client brick. It’s a hunk of metal. You can’t do anything with a thin client if it’s removed from the network. There’s no data stored on it. It won’t boot.
  • USB Protection: By default, ThinManager keeps all USB ports deactivated from accepting mass storage devices. It’s only possible if an administrator has allowed for that variance on that terminal.
  • No desktop: We never deliver a desktop with temptation to browse or download a game to a ThinManager terminal - only the applications that have been assigned to that terminal, unless an administrator specifically allows for the desktop availability.

Once networks start operating at quantum speed, traditional methods with keys to encrypt communications can be broken instantly. So we’re always going to be dealing with cybersecurity and re-inventing, and always overcoming new problems. That’s good for us; we are here to solve those problems and stay ahead of them.

 

Roaming Data for Visibility

Nymi: What kinds of visibility can companies gain now that they could not before platforms like ThinManager?

Jordan: The shadowing feature is one of those. It gives the ability to share information in a way that the person doesn’t have to be the one doing all the work to receive the information. Plus, people have visibility without having to walk or get in a vehicle.

The most important thing for visibility right now is mobile devices, including phones, pads and goggles. Almost all mobile technologies employ location technologies like Bluetooth and NFC. Users can move about freely and get the information they need to do their jobs. That brings the promise of increased visibility and, at the same time, increased security issues.

With ThinManager, even on a mobile device, to authenticate as a user you have to use the virtual keyboard. Why wouldn’t we just take it a step further and use something like the Nymi band and use the NFC on the device to authenticate the person the same way as to a tethered terminal?

With mobile devices, security issues are a lot harder to track, and a lot easier to create. So if we can work on authenticating the person to the mobile device, not just the device to the network, then we have something more special and more secure. But we need something frictionless; we need techniques that don’t require the person to do anything other than be there. If they are authorized and in proximity, they get access. That’s the way it should be. That will increase visibility even more. Once people see that mobility can be secure and locked down, they will adopt it on a wider scale.

Nymi: The concept of getting the right information to the right person at the right time has been paramount in manufacturing for decades. Is the pressure to achieve that any different today, or is it just that the technology allows for a much more comprehensive solution?

Jordan: A little bit of both. Currently, with a smaller group of humans to accomplish the same work, the right information for them is important. Now, because of network speeds and all of these IIoT devices being installed everywhere, what will happen is we’ll add more complex and maybe a convoluted level of information that they want to give to the right person, in the right place and time. What I mean by that: typically those conversations have stuck to the local plant. But now I think it will be descriptive of what’s happening from the plant floor up to the C Suite.

It’s just the scope that’s different. It used to be the plant floor, then multiple plant floors and now it’s worldwide operations. Getting valuable information up to the people at the right time to make 30,000 foot decisions. We’ve never been able to do that before, because the information was not real-time.

 

Rely on the Latest Technology

Nymi: Companies are increasingly reliant on IT/OT systems to conduct their business and run their production plants. How can you ensure uptime and reliability for them? What kind of service agreements should customers expect?

Jordan: That’s interesting for us. ThinManager, from a technical standpoint, is only required when the terminal boots. You can take a ThinServer offline. Once thin clients boot, they will operate with the configuration you’ve given them. So for us, that’s never been an issue. We don’t take down the plant.

But of course, it’s centralized. That’s why redundancy is so important for power supplies and networks. We are proud that when one of our terminals go down, you don’t lose data and can replace it in 2-3 minutes. Service agreements are important. We require the first year you have a terminal, you must have a support agreement. That’s because challenges usually happen when getting it up and running. The most important part is the software maintenance agreement, with free upgrades through time. You want the new technology that makes you more productive, secure and agile to move into the future against your competition.

 


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