The Future of Data Acquisition: Will the Internet's Cloud-Computing Replace the Data Logger?Written by Scott South and Adam Krumbein
Electronic data loggers have been integral in data collection since their inception with widespread adoption beginning in the early 1980’s. Data loggers are used in a variety of industries and applications including remote water resource monitoring, weather condition monitoring, machine monitoring, gas and oil projects, building HVAC control, and structural vibration monitoring in bridges and buildings.
A data logger’s primary purpose is to automatically collect data points from sensors and make these data points available for review, analysis, and decision making processes. Many data loggers can also be programmed for other purposes, such as alarm and control conditions.
The microprocessor-based data logger was a revolutionary data acquisition tool that replaced most of the historical mechanical-based paper chart and punch tape recorders, which required either manual data input from the charts or scanned data using special equipment that could create a digital file from the paper record.
The data acquisition industry may be at the beginning of another revolutionary data acquisition change with the advancements of the Internet’s Cloud Computing.
The Microprocessor Revolution: Data Logging Goes Digital
The computer microprocessor revolution in the 1980’s advanced the efficiency, quality, and quantity of recorded data. Monitoring locations could be set up and left alone for extended periods of time. Telemetry (radio) systems at the monitoring location enabled transmission of data directly from the data logger back to a central location, where the data could be evaluated and analyzed.
Data loggers with many different features and benefits are available and programmable to meet users’ specific data acquisition application. However, the physical data logger still needs routine maintenance and has a risk of failure resulting in lost data. Like other technology, the rapid advancement in microprocessor technology can make a new data logger designs obsolete in a short period of time.
Data output formats from data loggers are not standardized, which often necessitates a centralized network software program for collection, decoding and processing of the data. Data presented on-line via the Internet typically requires another software program designed to integrate with the data collection software program. These two programs are typically owned and maintained by the owner of the data acquisition system.
A data acquisition management revolution is emerging, with the movement of software programs from a personal computer or business network systems to the Internet, and integrating such software with other web services. This movement is reducing the demand on individual networks hosting and maintaining software programs, and is poised to potentially revolutionize the current data logging and acquisition model.
Two factors are currently converging that could make this revolution possible: 1.) the expansion of connections to the Internet from anywhere, and 2.) the distributed computing power of the Internet that is being made available to users though easy-to-use web services (known as “Cloud Computing”).
With this, the Internet has the potential to change data logging process the same way the microprocessor revolution did in the 1980s.
Introduction to Cloud Computing on the Internet
“Cloud computing” is a relatively new term, but the concept has been a long-held vision of Internet application developers. Now this vision is a reality and is rapidly growing in terms of availability and acceptance. Embracing the concept of cloud computing is a paradigm shift on how software is accessed and where relevant data is collected, stored, and processed.
Broken down to its simplest form, the Internet is simply a network of computers (called servers) that are accessed to store vast amounts of data and display such data in web sites, send and receive email, share photos, distribute movies, music, games, and any other on-line activities.
Cloud computing is the concept of moving the localized computer processing, programs, and data to an Internet server for easier and more secure access. An analogy is every home and business having its own localized electric power generation plant versus a remote, centralized power generation plant that services multiple homes and business. Today, the power plants are the remote server farms and the transmission and distribution of data are the power lines. The trend is towards purchasing a data plan service from maintaining powerful computing hardware and software programs for each location.
Benefits of cloud computing include real-time access of information, scalability of processing power as the demand load increases, less risk of down-time compared to localized networks, and direct interaction with other web services – thereby enhancing the quality and relevance of the information for better informed decision making.
Software can be written to run “on the cloud” in much the same way as Microsoft Office runs its MS Office applications on a personal computer or localized network server. Rather than running the software locally, the software and related data files are stored on a remote server accessible on the Internet. Many large companies run cloud computing services, such as Amazon’s S3 service, Google’s App Engine, and Microsoft’s Windows Azure platform.
Putting the Data Logger Online
A data logger operates in a similar way to a computer in that a software program (known as embedded firmware) is stored on the data logger that controls the logger’s processes – some of which are defined by the user, such as the logging intervals from connected sensors. The data logger also has a data storage device similar to a computer, using FLASH memory to store files. This set of hardware and software work in tandem to collect and store data, control other instruments, and transmit data if the logger is connected to a telemetry radio device.
A typical data acquisition application includes sensors connected or integrated with a data logging instrument at each physical location (See Figure 1). A telemetry modem (radio) is often connected to the data logger for wireless communication of the sensor data to a central office location. The central office location communicates with the data logger from the remote locations using a data management software program. Internet access is typically provided from a separate customized program that integrates with the data management software program.
Figure 1. Flow of Data in a traditional example data acquisition system
Today, a revolutionary change for data acquisition applications is available for those data collection sites that have Internet access (See Figure 2). The need for a localized data logging instrument and separate centralized data management software program is no longer required.
Figure 2. Flow of data using the concept of cloud computing
Instead, the user simply integrates the sensors directly to an IP (Internet Protocol) addressable telemetry modem for direct connectivity to the Internet program. The Internet software program placed on a remote server is programmed to communicate directly with the remote modem and pull each sensor’s data. Data buffers can be included in the IP addressable modem for missed connections with the Internet Server. This works well with serial addressed digital sensors (such as RS485 or SDI-12), but is more involved with analog sensors. This revolutionary trend will also increase the demand for new smart sensors and for smart mobile phone applications for remote configuration and programming of sensors.
The software program residing on the Internet cloud functions as a virtual data logger and can be programmed to execute multiple user-defined routines and utilize other web services for enhanced data analysis, reporting, notifications and control not possible with a typical data logging instrument.
Figure 3. An overview of how data from remote monitoring stations can be accessed from any computer or mobile device with access to the internet, by taking advantage of a virtual logging platform hosted on the cloud.
Cloud-based data collection and display services are now being offered by companies such as Stevens Water Monitoring System’s “Stevens-Connect” service that replaces the data acquisition and processing firmware of a data logger with an on-line software service that collects, processes, and stores data from multiple locations. In addition, custom routines, configuration, relationship analysis, control, and reporting can easily be managed with this on-line data collection service. This can be thought of as a virtual data logger, since Stevens-Connect performs the same functions as a traditional data logger instruments but exists as software online, running on the cloud.
Benefits of an Internet-based/cloud computing data collection system:
The benefits and features of “virtual data logging” are poised to revolutionize the future of the data acquisition industry similar to the revolution from mechanical based date acquisition to microprocessor based data loggers in the 1980s.
As the Internet continues to expand and become available wirelessly to more locations, users can expect to see additional web-based services offered that make the acquisition of remote data online a simple solution, providing real-time access to critical data for businesses and organizations in many industries.
About Stevens Water Monitoring Systems, Inc.:
Stevens Water Monitoring Systems designs and manufactures instrumentation and systems for long-term monitoring, collection and data analysis of water conditions and related environmental conditions. The Company's core technology enables measurement of water level, water quality, groundwater, soil conditions and weather conditions. Stevens’ technology is expanding into advanced image processing and wireless communication for information analysis that enhances industrial and military operations. Stevens provides proven products for certified wireless transmission of environmental data, from short-range Bluetooth technology to long-range GEO and LEO satellite communications solutions.