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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HMI software vendors and other suppliers of server-level software applications have only recently begun to offer virtualization-ready products, but their offerings are growing rapidly, and are being packaged for quick installation and use.

"Most recently, Rockwell Automation introduced virtual image templates for our PlantPAx process automation system, including a system server, operator workstation and engineering workstation. These templates are preinstalled with PlantPAx software, and are delivered as images on a USB hard drive, helping to reduce validation costs and system deployment time," explains Baker.

"Setting up and installing a complete process automation system traditionally takes several days, with various operating systems, software packages, and patches. However, with a virtual image template of each server and station, system components can be deployed in minutes. The templates are distributed in Open Virtualization Format (OVF). OVF is an open standard for distributing virtual machines, and is compatible with a number of virtualization solution providers," concludes Baker.

ABB has embraced virtualization technology for its entire server/client architecture. "Our System 800xA is factory tested and fully documented using virtualization technology," reports Roy Tanner, 800xA global product marketing channel manager for the Americas at ABB.

"Testing is done to ensure performance levels meet our customer's most demanding applications. Our entire automation platform can run in a virtualized environment, including redundant servers that are connected to controller networks, application servers (historians, asset optimization, batch management, etc.) and even operator clients," adds Tanner.

This is what's happening now, but what does the future possibly hold as data center technologies move to process automation?

"I anticipate three main advancements in the next 10 years," predicts Paul Hodge, product manager for virtualization at Honeywell Process Solutions. "It will be simpler to support more advanced virtualization features, such as high availability and transparent patching and upgrades. We're doing this already with our turnkey blade server offering, and easy access to advanced features will continue to evolve.

"Virtualization has abstracted users from having to deal with physical hardware, but they now need to interface with the hypervisor. Private cloud technology will gradually be adopted in the process automation industry, and will abstract users from being exposed to the hypervisor. This transformation will allow users to be more application-centric," explains Hodge.

"Finally, there will be increased use of virtual appliances, which are virtual machines containing the selected application with a bare bones and properly configured operating system. The idea is that the application and operating system are one. If the appliance needs to be upgraded, both the application and operating system will be upgraded at the same time. Users will only need to turn the virtual appliance on in the same way they would a DVD player or TV," foresees Hodge.

Virtualization and thin client visualization are growing rapidly in the process industries due to lower costs, greater reliability and longer lifecycles. Further advancements promise to increase adoption rates, propelling process automation systems to a brave new world that takes advantage of IT advances, while improving safety, availability and security. 

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