Industrial Wireless Goes Open-Source

Open-Source Developers Can't Turn Bad Ideas into Good Ideas, but They Can Turn Good Ideas into Great Ideas

By Ian Verhappen

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In mid-April, Nivis, announced it's now providing the source code for its ISA100.11a and WirelessHART software platforms, which will certainly encourage the development of products using both protocols. It appears the business model Nivis plans to follow is a combination of the one used by many Linux providers and similar open-source-based companies. The company's press release states: "Nivis will utilize a hybrid model, in which the core software is freely available, with Nivis selling a complete suite of supporting services and hardware, which will include software maintenance, professional services—consulting and support, ATEX Zone 2 gateways (VersaRouter 900), OEM gateway modules (VersaRouter 800), radio modules (VersaNode 210, 220, 310), hardware reference designs, development kits, handheld provisioning tools and network simulation devices."

Going to an open-source model will open the standard development to a wide range of communities, including universities, systems integrators, OEMs, end users, enthusiasts and startups. It gives them the opportunity to build on the WirelessHART and ISA100.11a software platforms.

The open-source offering includes the following software components for the two protocols: ISA100.11a—field device, backbone router, gateway, system manager and security manager; and WirelessHART—field device, access point, gateway, network manager and security manager.

Of course, the above software still requires the approved hardware to operate properly, and of course, Nivis will be pleased to sell you that and the associated listed services as well. Despite this, moving to an open-source model will increase the adoption of wireless field networks, while also increasing access to, and hence, the pool of coders able to assist in its advancement.

Read Also: A Guide to Managing Industrial Wireless Networks

What's not addressed with the open-source software, but is certainly something that will be of concern to end users before they implement a field-level network in their facility, will be the question of compliance. The device is made compliant by receiving the appropriate "registration" with either the HART Communications Foundation or the ISA100 Wireless Compliance Institute. Registration is usually based on a combination of hardware and software, so even though the software will be free, anyone wanting to develop a new device will need to acquire a suitable platform as well—likely from Nivis would be my guess.

Open source may be free, however, the total solution cost must factor in other items such as training, consulting, maintenance, etc. As a result, the total cost of ownership to institutions may not differ greatly between a closed-source solution and an open-source alternative.

The enterprise version of the software was available in April, with the developer code released in mid-May, so both versions are now available for download from www.nivis.com/OpenSource. As is typical of open-source tools, a developer's forum for online support is also being hosted at www.nivis.com/Forums. Posting of bugs for tracking on the forum risks "warts" in the software, as well the associated standard, being open to others.

However, as in most open-source environments, the ability to add features and submit them back to the community will help improve the code. Open-source developers can't make bad ideas become good ideas, but they can turn good ideas into great ideas, which will improve the associated standards as well, assuming they're fed back to the associated committees, though it's likely many committee members will at least monitor developments.

This is a smart move on the part of Nivis, as I'm sure it will help the company sell more hardware/chipsets. More important, making this software available will expand the development pool for innovative ways to use wireless field level networks, and find the "killer apps" that will fuel the rapid adoption of wireless technology in plant environments.

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