Do you need a single-source middleware solution?

As integrated middleware solutions vie with best-of-breed products, Senior Tech Editor Dan Hebert wonders if there will ever be a true integrated solution that covers the entire middleware space?

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By Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical Editor

IF YOU WERE asked to list brand names in the process plant automation and control space, you would probably have some ready answers. In our recent Readers Choice survey, you ranked the main players in order as Emerson Process Management, Rockwell Automation, Honeywell, Invensys, Siemens, and ABB.

How about brand names at the enterprise resource planning (ERP) level? Recent acquisitions and consolidation have reduced recognizable brand names to two: SAP and Oracle/JD Edwards/PeopleSoft.

Management expects you to link your brand name automation systems to their brand name ERP systems with middleware. Quick, name the leading brand names in the middleware space. Not so easy, right?

Middleware is the poorly defined term for all of the software products that reside between the plant floor and the ERP system. Functionality encompassed by middleware includes HMI, historian, asset management, and other data handling, presentation and analysis.

Middleware has typically been a fragmented market, both horizontally and vertically. Horizontal fragmentation is the result of intense focus on one particular area by a leading vendor. For example, OSIsoft is a leader in data historian applications, but has no presence in other middleware areas.

Other firms focus on vertical markets like water/wastewater, power or pharmaceuticals. These firms tend to deliver an integrated middleware solution that works well only in the vertical market of focus.

But will there ever be a true integrated solution that covers the entire middleware space? Should there be?

There are two schools of thought with respect to these questions. The first set of true believers thinks that you should buy all of your middleware from one provider. The second church believes that you would be better served by selecting best-of-breed components for your middleware needs.

In the single provider category, Rockwell Automation is pushing hard to establish their RS brand name. “At the middleware layer we offer products like RSBizWare that give users throughout a manufacturing enterprise global access to production data and manufacturing information,” says Joe Bartolomeo, the commercial marketing director for Rockwell Automation.

Rockwell wants end users to combine RSBizWare with other RS-branded products like RSView to create an integrated middleware solution. “Applications in the Rockwell Software suite leverage a common services platform called FactoryTalk. User benefits are re-use of data, easier implementation, and more efficient information flow,” adds Bartolomeo.

Another true believer in integrated solutions is Iconics. “BizViz delivers manufacturing intelligence to the decision makers via role-base portals, wireless devices and customizable reports,” says Jindrich Lisak, vice president of business development for Iconics. “BizViz also allows data exchange between various data sources. All BizViz applications are built upon a common framework called FrameWorX which facilitates task scheduling, security, tracing, and other shared functions.”

According to Iconics, a common framework ensures seamless interoperability and scalability of all BizViz components, which they claim is particularly important on large scale or global implementation projects.

Iconics says that customers can use best-of-breed with BizViz, but they don’t recommend it. “While modular best-of-breed approach is possible with BizViz connectors, the customer is always faced with some form of application integration and related cost. Different best-of-breed solutions require different skill sets for deployment, support and maintenance. This further increases the cost of ownership.

Deploying a complete BizViz manufacturing intelligence solution eliminates this cost,” adds Lisak.

On the other hand, Yokogawa stands firmly with the best-of-breed approach. “Specializing, developing and owning software for a particular application means that the supplier can support and implement that application extremely well, allowing the user to be able to enjoy what he evaluates as best-in-class,” according to Bruce Jensen, the manager of systems marketing and sales support for Yokogawa Corporation of America.

Yokogawa feels that the move toward standards makes end user integration of best-of-breed applications viable. “ERP supplier SAP has announced support for the Business to Business ML (B2BML) interface, which provides schemas to support data interface between control suppliers and their Netweaver XI platform. The B2BML schemas were developed by the World Batch Forum as a means for interchange of data described by the ISA S95 standard. Based upon Extended Meta Language (XML), this standard schema shows promise to easily pass information between applications. Once the large ERP suppliers and control suppliers are on board, development of these interfaces will make it easy for users to pick the modules that they want and interface with other modules at the control and middleware levels,” concludes Jensen.

National Instruments sides with Yokogawa. “LabVIEW's native communication functionality is packaged into simple-to-use APIs that, when combined with the graphical dataflow programming paradigm of LabVIEW, make it very easy for users to efficiently and effectively build their own middleware applications,” reports Greg Wempe, a product manager with National Instruments.

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