The Future of Data Acquisition: Will the Internet's Cloud-Computing Replace the Data Logger?


Written by Scott South and Adam Krumbein
Stevens Water Monitoring Systems, Inc.

Electronic data loggers have been integral instrument in automation of data collection since their inception with widespread adoption beginning in the 1980's. Data loggers are used across a variety of industries requiring automated data collection - applications include remote water resource monitoring, weather conditions, machine monitoring, gas and oil projects, building HVAC control, and structural vibration monitoring in bridges and buildings.

While most loggers perform functions more than just logging data, a data logger's primary purpose is to automatically collect data points from sensors and make this data available for review, analysis, and decision making processes.

The microprocessor-based data logger was a revolutionary data acquisition tool and a large step forward from the historical mechanical-based paper charts and punch tape, which required either manual data input from the charts or scanned using special equipment that could output a digital file of the paper record.

Could the data acquisition industry be at the beginning of another revolutionary data acquisition change with the advancements of the Internet's Cloud Computing?

The Microprocessor Revolution: Loggers Go Digital
The computer microprocessor revolution in the 1980's advanced efficiencies, 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's computer program.

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 and lost data. Also, the rapid advancement in microprocessor technology can make a new data logger design obsolete in a short period of time.

Data output format is often unique to each brand of data loggers, which requires a centralized network software program for collection and processing of the data. Data that is to be 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 revolution is emerging with moving software programs from a personal computer or business network system to the Internet and integrating such software with other web services. This movement is reducing the demands on individual networks hosting and maintaining software programs, and is poised to potentially revolutionize the current data logging / acquisition model.

Two factors are currently converging that could make this possible: 1.) the expansion of the ability to connect to the Internet 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 relative new term, but the concept has been around as long as the modern Internet. Now the concept has reached reality and is rapidly growing in availability and acceptance. Embracing the concept of cloud computing is a paradigm mind 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 being harnessed 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 taking the localized computer processing, programs, and data and placing this information on the Internet for easier and more secure access. An analogy is every home and business having its owned 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 purchasing and maintaining powerful computing hardware for each location.

The benefits of cloud computing are that the information is available for immediate, real-time access, the ability to scale as the demand load increases, less risk of down-time then of a localized network failure, and direct interaction with other web service - 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 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's operations are similar to a computer in that a software program (known as firmware, which is the software that runs the electronics on the logger) is stored on the data logger that controls processes - some that are defined by the user, such as logging intervals from connected sensors. The data logger also has a 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.

A typical application includes sensors connected or integrated with a data logging instrument at each physical location. 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 from the remote locations using a data management software program. Internet access is typically from a separate customized program that integrates with the data management program.

Today, a revolutionary change for data collection applications is available for those data collection points that have Internet access. The need for a localized data logging instrument and separate centralized data management software program is not required.
Instead, the user may be able to simply integrate the sensor directly to an IP addressable telemetry modem for direct connectivity to the Internet program. The Internet software program placed on a remote server is programmed to call the remote modem and pull each sensor. This works well with serial addressed digital sensors (such as RS485 or SDI-12), but is more involved with analog sensors.

The software program residing on the Internet cloud functions as the virtual data logger and can be programmed to execute multiple user-defined routines and utilized other web services for enhanced data analysis, reporting, notifications and control not possible with a typical data logging instrument.

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 collection and processing firmware of a data logger with on-line software that collects, processes, and stores data from multiple locations. In addition, custom routines, configuration, relationship analysis, and reporting can easily be managed and control with these on-line data collection services. This can be thought of as a virtual data logger, since it performs the same functions as a traditional data logger instruments but exists as software online.

Benefits in an Internet-based data collection system:
1. Data is backed up on a regular basis within a highly secured server and facility.
2. Access to the data is an integral element of cloud computing and no separate data management program, process or routine needs to be purchased, programmed, and managed.
3. Real-time, advanced data analysis is a key benefit to moving data collection and storage to the Internet cloud resulting from the enhanced processing power of Internet servers and the integration of other web service. Charts and graphs can include relationship information from other data collection web sites. Advance mathematical or scientific analysis can be programmed that including data variables from multiple web sites. Images from remote sites and other locations can be incorporated into the analysis.
4. No replacement and individual updates of data logging instruments are necessary because Software updates are easily rolled out to the end-user. Accordingly, the cloud-based data collection software is automatically provided with the latest software updates and features as they are released.

The benefits of "virtual data logging" and the features it provides are poised to revolutionize the future of the data logging industry similar to the revolution from mechanical based date acquisition to microprocessor based data acquisition in the 1980s.

As the Internet continues the wireless connectivity expansion to more locations, users can expect to see more services offered that make the collection of remote data online a simple solution 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. Find Stevens online at www.stevenswater.com.

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