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The Role of the RTU in our "Smart" IoT World

Before the rise of modern IP networks (and the internet connecting them), RTUs were an absolute necessity for remote site monitoring.

That's because equipment of that era communicated status information almost exclusively via contact closures. If a device was overheating, experiencing high radio noise, or having any other specific problem, it would latch a corresponding relay.

That latch went nowhere on its own. It couldn't be natively routed anywhere. You had to have a device at the site to monitor that relay. That device was a "Remote Telemetry Unit" (also called a "Remote Terminal Unit").

Recently, however, the "Internet of Things" (IoT) became a major force in consumer homes worldwide. That's led to a perception that the same shift should be made instantly in telecom networks at large companies and agencies.

A consumer home is very different from a large data center. A large data center is very different from a remote telecom site that takes hours of "windshield time" (driving time) to reach and can face very harsh conditions.

A technician spends hours traveling to a remote site from a central office.
The monitoring technology that can work in a manned data center is quite different than what you should use at very remote sites, where hours of "windshield time" driving is required to reach it. I'll help you choose the right tech for your specific situation.

Certainly, IoT has a role to play. Still, don't be too quick to eliminate field-proven RTUs from your strategy. They bring tremendous value to your monitoring system when used correctly.

For that reason, let's take a look at 3 major reasons to use traditional RTUs in our new "smart" world of IoT:

1) Almost everyone has some contact closures to pick up

Especially if you're a younger employee or focused mainly on the "corporate IT" world (rather than very remote telecom sites), contact closures may seem like "an old thing."

Digital contact closures absolutely are older, but that doesn't mean you can ignore them. Nor should you.

No network was built instantly. It evolved over time. You'll have some older gear, and you must monitor it.

What's more, the simplicity of contact closures and traditional analog circuits is actually a strength for your monitoring reliability. You can't get an IP address or other setting wrong. There are fewer layers involved, which means there are fewer opportunities for a costly failure.

That's why you'll often see devices with both protocol communications and contact closures. A common hybrid strategy is to use SNMP, Modbus, or another protocol to output hundreds (or thousands) of detailed data points. That same device will then have a handful of contact closures to summarize alarm status as "Minor", "Major", "Critical", & "Status" severities.

So, even as the world marches forward, don't be too eager to throw out the past. Every technology has something to offer you. It's your job to weave them all together into a cohesive monitoring system. You can't afford to ignore a major piece of the puzzle just because you don't yet fully understand it.

2) A single RTU minimizes install, maintenance, and training time

As much as people tend to focus on a box's purchase price, installation deserves at least as much (if not more) attention.

How much time does each new hardware design and interface cost your team? How much time is spent fumbling through new and different menus?

An RTU acts as a central collection hub for readings from a smoke detector, motion sensor, temperature + humidity sensor, door sensors, and floor water sensor.
Notice how the RTU above provides a central data nexus for all of the attached sensors. You only have to set up one web interface instead of 5 or 6.

As an example, consider a site similar to the one pictured above. At this site, you want to monitor temperature, humidity, a door, generator fuel level, rectifier voltage, and battery voltage. Sure, you could find small IoT devices to monitor these things, each with their RJ-45 LAN port and web interface.

Six sensors is a small enough number that your small army of IoT boxes might be priced under a small/medium RTU.

But now, think about what happens when those boxes arrive on your dock.

Instead of installing one RTU and then wiring six traditional sensors to it, you'll have to set up each IoT sensor individually. The time it takes to do this will likely gobble up all of your savings and put you in negative territory.

Even if you make it through the initial install, every configuration change, spare replacement, or new hire training will be multiplied by your device count.

Every single box you add to any of your system carries a cost in installation, maintenance, end-of-life replacement and training. Don't inflate your deployment carelessly.

3) Proven RTU Designs Have a Much Longer Service History & Build Quality

Network monitoring is not a place where "sexy" matters. Don't be too quick to focus on new designs at the expense of proven ones.

A remote site suffers expensive equipment damage and data loss due to an HVAC breakdown and overheating.
Your network WILL face a serious threat sooner or later. When that happens, do you want a proven monitoring system - or one that focuses mainly on modern trends and new developments?

Consider two scenarios:

  1. You buy remote monitoring devices with shiny cases and beautiful web interfaces. The whole system ties into the cloud, and you have a cool app on your phone. In the middle of the night, those shiny remote devices fail because commercial power voltage drops. You're blind at a time when you need your remote monitoring data the most.
  2. You buy RTUs with boring-but-durable powder-coated aluminum cases. The web interface is serviceable, although it's not the most gorgeous thing you've ever seen. Instead of a cloud app, you can send email/SMS message or SNMP traps to your SNMP manager. This RTU design has been deployed in the US, Canada, Antarctica, the Arctic Circle, the Middle East, and the humid tropics of Asia. It has a wide-range power supply that can run on voltages from 18-60 VDC. The box stays online during the under-voltage conditions that night, and you respond quickly to minimize the impact.

As I hope you can appreciate, the second example above isn't as "pretty", perhaps, but it protects your organization and your customers (and your job!) from harm at a critical time. Which system would you rather have?

Your next step: Talk to a monitoring expert

If you're working on a monitoring project, why not talk to someone who's done it hundreds of times before? Even if you "done monitoring before", you'll always learn at least a few helpful tips. I can help you to balance new IoT concepts with traditional telecom monitoring best practices.

Give DPS a call at 1-800-693-0351 or send me a quick online message. I'll talk with you about your project and give you a free application drawing of what I recommend.

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