Virtualization Streamlines System Lifecycle

Consolidation, Decoupling of Software Applications from Physical Hardware Saves Time and Effort

By Jim Montague

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Just because you can't see a computer doesn't mean it isn't out there and working hard for you.

The worlds of personal, mainstream and now industrial computing are quickly migrating from many individual processors and servers to high-capacity microprocessors than can replicate many virtual devices, which are manifested only as software, but do all the same work as physical machines despite their ghostly existence.

"Virtualization is a technique through which one computer may host many independent operating systems that function as independent computers, each accommodating a variety of applications," explained Grant Le Sueur, senior product director for control and safety at Invensys. "Virtual machines and the host operating system may be accessed for user input locally upon the server or remotely using remote desktop services.

"Meanwhile, a thin client is a computer that traditionally has no hard disk storage or major operating system, so it's often used to interface with virtual computing and virtual machines. A thin client's primary role is to provide the user interface to a remote desktop server that may be hosted by a traditional server or a virtual machine."

Le Sueur presented on the topic of "Virtualization and Thin Clients" today at the 2013 Foxboro & Triconex Global Client Conference in San Antonio, Texas.

Le Sueur added that useful terms related virtualization include: "hypervisor," which is a piece of software responsible for handling system resources that manage and house the virtual machines; "host OS," which is an operating system (OS) that accommodates virtual machines and their operating systems; and "guest OS," which is an operating system that's contained within each virtual machine.

"The beauty of virtualization is that decoupling operating systems from their traditional hardware into virtual guests gives them a lot more flexibility, though they still depends on a host OS," explained Le Sueur. "Previously, when servers like Solaris, XPs or Windows 7 went out, it meant buying new equipment, which could be a generational nightmare and require a lot of investment in technological churn. Virtualization and decoupling guest and host OSs means users can just copy a guest OS to a new virtual machine in a couple of minutes when needed. This means a guest OS doesn't have to be reloaded from scratch, which can help a lot with mean time to repair." Le Sueur added that virtual machines are also being designed for 24/7 duty in critical applications, and their ability to be quickly replaced makes them ideal for these applications.

To begin implementing a virtual computing application, Le Sueur recommends that users start out by thinking of it as a regular control system with its usual clusters of I/O, controllers, workstations, networking devices and servers. "You can begin by creating an orthodox architecture, and then consolidating sections into virtual machines where it makes the most sense," said Le Sueur. "For example, you can virtualize an advanced process control (APC) application or some of your workstations. In fact, our V90 virtual machine host server can now turn 10 physical computers into one virtual machine, which can include a primary domain controller, historian server, Galaxy repository, NetEight server, thin client host, terminal services server and four spare devices. And, because virtual machines can coexist with traditional ones, users can choose where they're most comfortable going virtual with thin clients, and where they still want to retain physical computers."

V90 is based on a Microsoft Windows 2008 R2 server with Intel Xeon processor, 48 gigabytes of registered memory, and McAfee Virus Scan with AntiSpyware Enterprise software. It can host both I/A Series and Foxboro control software as virtual machines, and can also host non-I/A Series software that isn't connected to Invensys' MESH VLAN. The thin clients that work with the V90 host server have AMD processors and USB peripheral support accessories.

Le Sueur reports that Invensys has already launched V90, thin clients, workstations and networking hardware as part of its Phase 1 virtualization program. Its upcoming Phase 2 will include a new USB-connected annunciator keyboard.

 
Some of the main activities for which using V90 and virtualization delivers benefits include:

  • Staging new systems: Much less hardware is required when staging and implementing new systems. Hardware may be shipped ahead for installation to site during factory acceptance test (FAT), and then ship virtual machines (VMs) after FAT.
  • Serviceability: Virtual machines may be archived off site by Invensys support, allowing for rapid diagnostics and replication of reported faults leading to swifter remediation.
  • Temporary capacity: Temporary entitlement of additional engineering stations may be provided for peak activity periods, such as commissioning of new plant or expansions.
  • Test bed and offline systems: Laptop virtual systems, including simulation for both DCS and safety, can be loaded and used for developing new control strategies and testing them prior to deployment.
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