Honeywell Puts (Some of) Its Faith in Virtualization

Process automation system users have realized many benefits, not least in terms of capital cost, as the industry has progressively adopted the twin concepts of open systems and COTS (Commercial Off-the-Shelf) technologies, but there has been a downside. One significant problem has been to expose mission-critical systems to the same security issues as those threatening and originating in commercial and even domestic systems. But arguably the greatest burden has been imposed by the remorseless stream of updates and new releases originating in the commercial and personal worlds, but imposing real financial, managerial and operational demands on the real-time world of process automation.

Skipping Vista

As Honeywell Process Solutions (HPS) sales support director for EMEA Jean-Marie Alliet explained during his now-traditional 90-minute technology update tour de force at last month's Honeywell EMEA user group meeting in Lisbon, one, at least partial, solution to this irritation is to enable existing users to remain on a particular release of their system for a longer period and to skip intermediate releases before making a major upgrade. Thus when R400, the next major release of the Experion PKS control system becomes available next year, users will be able to migrate to it not just from the current R311, but directly from the earlier R310 and R301 without having to implement the intermediate updates. Users will also almost certainly be relieved to hear that, contrary the company's own prediction of 12 months ago that R400 would move to Windows Vista, the intention now is to emulate other DCS vendors, such as Invensys Operations Management, and go direct to Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008. The new release will also see Honeywell's TPS system finally merging completely with Experion, while maintaining backwards compatibility with legacy systems, although that will presumably be as much a benefit to the vendor, through simplifying future support, as to the user.

Open Systems

While such developments will no doubt be welcomed by users, reducing the cost of ownership of existing systems, it has long been recognized that a more fundamental approach to installing, managing and maintaining future generations of open systems is required. The solution, Honeywell believes, may lie in the concept, currently very much flavor of the month in the IT world, of 'virtualization.'

Virtualization is hardly new; indeed,it was developed and widely applied, principally by IBM, as long ago as the 1960s. The current renewed enthusiasm in the IT world stems principally from its ability to allow multiple applications running on separate servers to remain independent of each other while being consolidated on to smaller numbers of servers through the creation of 'virtual' machines.

In the world of process automation, it is the possibility of effectively separating or 'abstracting' applications from the physical hardware and operating system resources that is the principal attraction, introducing as it does the potential of largely insulating the user from the tyranny of repeated hardware and software updates. As Alliet told the HUG audience, there are still doubts as to whether virtualization can be implemented successfully in a real-time, mission-critical environment but, as a first step, Honeywell plans to introduce a virtualized version of Experion for 'off-process', applications early next year to enable experience to be gained with the technology, while a virtualized version of the Experion eServer will provide the opportunity further to explore the use of the technology in on-process but nevertheless non safety-critical use. These initiatives will allow both Honeywell itself and its users to, as Alliet puts it, "gain confidence that the technology works" and can deliver on its promise of hardware independence, hardware consolidation and improved manageability.

Key Technology Trends

Twelve months ago Norm Gilsdorf was completing his first year as HPS president for EMEA. This year, though still based in the U.K. which, he says, puts him closer to Honeywell’s key markets, he was hosting HUG as president of the whole operation following Jack Bolick's sudden departure in January of this year and subsequent re-emergence as CEO of wireless power networking pioneer Adura. Gilsdorf sees developments such as virtualization underpinning what he identifies as the key technology trends which will characterize the process automation industry in the decade up to 2020 and behind which Honeywell will be putting its development effort. These he listed as ubiquitous sensors, wireless, the transformation of data into knowledge, the convergence of IT and process control, the unification of the intermediate layers in the Purdue automation model and the extension of process automation beyond traditional plant boundaries.

New sensors, he suggested, would include low cost 'lick & stick' wireless devices, prototypes of which were on show in the demonstration hall, but in the broader sense might also extend to the idea of using video as a process input. Either way, the key will almost certainly be wireless with its potential to reduce the cost of installing sensors by as much as 90%. Examples of transforming the resultant explosion in the amount of data coming into control systems might include early event detection, soft sensors and the better management of procedures. "30% of all incident reports listed procedural operations as one of the causes," he noted.

Subdued

Overall this year',s HUG EMEA was a more subdued and somewhat smaller scale affair than in previous years, no doubt reflecting the economic downturn whose effects had hardly been felt, let alone quantified, a year ago but which are now impacting every area of the process automation industry. Honeywell's reaction seems to be to focus ever more intensely on the vertical markets in which it is already strong―witness this year's acquisition of natural gas specialist RMG to add to last year's Enraf acquisition. That may well sit comfortably with Gilsdorf's own experience in Honeywell's UOP operation and is reflected in his increasingly confident, but lower key style compared with that of his more flamboyant predecessor.

Hard Times

Finally, it's always interesting to note how hard economic times lead DCS vendors to rediscover their love for smaller and thus lower-cost systems which could even be sold through the integrator channel. Previous examples from earlier economic downturns included the former Fisher Controls' microProvox as well as, some might say, the original DeltaV and Honeywell's own late, but not necessarily lamented PlantScape, developed in partnership with Rockwell.

This time, perhaps prompted in part by its newly aggressive former partner, Honeywell is placing particular emphasis on the new smaller scale versions of Experion. Experion HS, based on the recently introduced MasterLogic PLC, is targeting smaller scale SCADA , fire & gas and packaged system opportunities, while Experion LS, based on the C200 and a new C200E controller, the latter maintaining compatibility with the C200, but adding more memory, targets smaller scale, typically batch-oriented opportunities in hybrid industries. New for next year will be the ability to run Experion Batch Manager in the C200E controller and support for more stations and higher SCADA point counts.

  • Paying a literally flying visit to Lisbon was PAS founder & CEO Eddie Habibi. While he generously took time out to brief and INSIDER's Andrew Bond on PAS's Automation Genome concept and its Integrity solution for extracting information from and documenting installed systems, one couldn't help feeling that his principal mission was to smooth ruffled Honeywell feathers following Invensys Operations Management's decision to standardize on Integrity as the means of delivering as-built documentation on customers'new systems.

Integrity is a generic development of the DOC 3000 and DOC 4000 applications developed by PAS and licensed to Honeywell to provide automatic documentation of TDC3000 and subsequent Honeywell systems, and there may have been some resentment that IOM should have been the first beneficiary of the new technology. Whether Habibi's undoubted charm and huge enthusiasm will be enough to overcome residual Honeywell reservations about following the IOM lead and adopting Integrity remains to be seen. Certainly, if his own recollection of their meeting is to be relied on, Integrity appealed to the engineer in Norm Gisldorf who was soon coming up with his own suggestions for new applications.

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