This story was originally published in my July 07, 2023 newsletter. You can sign up for the newsletter here.
For years I’ve watched mentions of the Node-RED open source programming language proliferate in industrial environments. For those unfamiliar with Node-RED, it’s a way to wire together devices, web services, and application programming interfaces (APIs) in a simple, low-code way. I first covered it way back in 2013 when it was first developed by Dave Conway-Jones and Nick O’Leary when they were working at IBM.
I’ve even used it to wire together bits of my smart home in the past, which is a pretty common occurrence. It’s incredibly easy to use and incredibly flexible, which is why I think I encounter it in so many places. But as Node-RED has gained in popularity for industrial use cases, it has needed new features demanded by larger companies, which is why O’Leary has co-founded FlowForge.
FlowForge was founded two years ago to add necessary features, such as creating audit trails for changes and security logging for access on top of Node-RED to meet the needs of industrial clients. Much like other businesses built on open source software, the goal for FlowForge is to layer services and features for paying clients on top of the open source base.
I think there’s a lot of demand for more robust features for paying clients when it comes to industrial and OT uses cases. That’s because Node-RED itself solves a lot of problems for OT developers. OT engineers can be less savvy when it comes to choosing developer tools (because many of them may not code much), and they work in more constrained environments where one simply doesn’t download software from the web.
“Even before FlowForge, during conversations I’d have in the community, I’d be blown away how often it pops up,” said O’Leary in an interview. “When I was at Hannover Messe [an industrial IoT trade show] the amount of Node-RED on screens was incredible. And based on conversations there, it tends to be engineers on the floor who are grabbing it to solve problems.”
It appears he’s right. A recent survey conducted among the Node-RED community shows that 15.2% of those using the language in a professional setting are industrial engineers. They represent the second largest type of users, with software developers as the largest at 41.3%.
This has been a slow growth for this sector, as industrial engineers have recognized they can use Node-RED to get data off programmable logic controllers to tie it into an IT system or connect the PLC data with API data from another area of the business or even a supplier. Middleware has long been a barrier when it comes to the industrial IoT, and Node-RED can provide some links between services really easily.
FlowForge provides two different ways to run Node-RED for industrial clients. They can run a version of Node-RED in a Kubernetes or Docker instance that has the FlowForge licensed features added on their own servers or through FlowForge’s cloud. FlowForge also provides an agent that can run versions of a licensed instance on equipment such as a programmable logic controller (PLC) that lets companies remotely edit the flows that might be running on that device. The agent enables the factory to create a secure link between the devices in the factory and the Node-RED platform in the cloud or running on a server elsewhere.
Going forward, O’Leary says FlowForge will focus on scaling Node-RED to multiple environments and boosting availability and resiliency. He’s also juggling the age-old challenge of any company built on top of an open source tool — giving back to the community so it continues to prosper and grow. “We haven’t forgotten about Node-RED,” he said. “We have had a little hiatus and stalled in terms of releases, but we’re getting that back on track and looking at the core of Node-RED. We are only successful if people want to build on Node-RED.”
For the open source project, O’Leary is looking at building dashboarding tools and making it easier to create data visualization. He says the company is hiring more folks to work on newer versions of Node-RED, and the team now has about 15 employees scattered around the world.
When it comes to the IT world, developers are the kingmakers. Executives often give software developers extraordinary leeway in selecting tools that work for them, and tend to only require those tools meet specific regulatory and security standards. The industrial world has traditionally been resistant to this way of thinking, but it’s clear the benefits of the industrial internet are changing that dynamic. By making a user-friendly tool that helps OT engineers tie into IT equipment, and allowing it to be done within the security and regulatory confines of industrial clients, FlowForge is in the middle of a large opportunity.