Advances in IT Improve Process Automation

Virtualization, Thin Clients and Other Technologies Borrowed From IT Data Centers Are the Next Big Thing in Process Automation

By Dan Hebert

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Similarly, Mallinckrodt saved big on a recent central utilities upgrade project by using virtualization to reduce the required number of PCs from 22 to just 13 physical PCs and 9 virtual machines. "Upgrading the current existing applications on the 22 PCs was significantly more than the cost of the entire new VM infrastructure. Virtualization produced an initial cost avoidance of $120,000, and a future projected cost avoidance of an additional $100,000," says Mallincrodt's Oberbeck. "We anticipate reduced downtime when dealing with production issues, and when making process improvements. Maintenance costs will be cut, and there will be substantial energy savings."

Fewer PCs also means less points of entry for hackers and other intruders, reducing costs of compliance, and making it simpler to secure the system. Most all virtualized systems are housed in secure, protected and climate-controlled locations, but many users require access to the applications running on these systems from the plant floor or the field, which is an area that's a great fit for another data center technology—thin clients.

Thin Clients

When users want to access virtualized systems, the two main choices are PCs and thin clients. For offices and other protected environments, PCs are usually the best choice because in most cases the PCs will be used for other tasks in addition to process control and monitoring.

But on the plant floor and in the field, thin clients have a number of advantages over thick client PCs (Table 2). "The beauty of thin clients is that, if the operator console fails, it can be swapped out in minutes. Once reconnected to the virtual machine, the operator picks up where he or she left off, saving hours of precious time," explains Maverick's Toth.

As detailed in the sidebar below, a recent pharmaceutical project realized a cost savings of 33% and a footprint reduction of 50% by using thin instead of thick clients. "With thin clients, users can create 'follow-me' operator workstations that can follow a single operator from thin client to thin client in a large plant, instead of creating a thick client at each physical location," explains Schneebeli of Malisko.

A recently completed water/wastewater utility plant design provided eight operator workstations around the plant using thin clients rather than workstations as in the past.  The initial benefit is greatly reduced workstation costs and HMI licensing.

Thin clients can be either fixed operator interface terminals, or portable wireless devices. "Virtualization provides a path to enabling workers to access their workstations on a variety of hardware platforms," observes Rockwell Automation's Baker.

"From tablets to thin clients, users can access their workstations from anywhere they have Internet access inside or outside of the plant. The desktops no longer run on the local hardware, but instead are securely running back in the data center. Users will be able to view and interact with their desktops through new virtualization desktop infrastructure products," adds Baker.

Another supplier offers a host of thin client solutions based on open standards. "We provide several workstations and panel products that include the Windows Remote Management designation for thin client virtualization applications," says Louis Szabo, business development manager at Pepperl+Fuchs.

Its customers are taking advantage of thin-client visualization of virtualized systems in a number of ways. "In a silicon processing application, thin clients are used in facilities monitoring water treatment and HVAC systems. A keyboard, video, mouse (KVM) extender wasn't feasible due to distances involved, and a full PC was too expensive due to hardware and software costs. Thin clients were already employed on our customer's business systems, so with the DCS vendor's recommendation, the customer decided to utilize thin clients for remote monitoring," explains Szabo.

Virtualization and thin clients are being used in many process automation applications, either together or separately. The future promises to bring these technologies to the forefront, but virtualization in particular will require a change in mindset among suppliers, system integrators and end users.

The Future

Thin clients are already in widespread use among process control plants, but virtualization is catching on more slowly, in some cases because end users and system integrators are waiting on automation suppliers. "The major HMI software vendors have begun to offer some products that are 'virtualization- ready' for a production environment within the last few years. Therefore, even though virtualization is a proven technology in the IT world, it is still fairly young in the industrial automation world," says Darnbrough of KDC Systems.

"Many of our larger and municipal customers will be slow to adopt virtualized systems in their specifications, but we anticipate starting up a cogeneration, balance-of-plant system at a major customer site this year with an HMI that takes advantage of virtualization," notes Darnbrough.

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