Automation Professionals Fill the Gap With Off-Site IT Teams

March 11, 2013
Advantages and Disadvantages of Having a Remote IT Department. What Works for Your Business? Should You Manage IT from Off-Site?
About the Author
Dan Hebert is senior technical editor for Control, Control Design and Industrial Networking. Email him at [email protected]. See his Google+ profile.Many process plants and process automation departments struggle with IT issues, particularly those closely related to process control and monitoring. While some larger plants and companies have sufficient IT staff conversant in automation issues, most do not, leaving automation professionals to fill the gap.

One source for assistance is off-site IT service providers. These firms run the gamut in terms of the services and assistance they provide, from basic data backup to full remote monitoring and support.

Data backup tasks are performed in-house at many process plants, but some facilities find it tempting to neglect or postpone them because day-to-day operations may continue unimpeded for months or even years with no data storage failures. But inevitably, a failure will occur, and it will be hugely disruptive if proper backup procedures haven't been followed.

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Off-site data storage firms can provide the discipline of regularly scheduled backups, offloading in-house resources from this tedious task. Firms such as Amazon, Google and Rackspace provide these services at very low prices, albeit with correspondingly low levels of specialized support, particularly for customers in niche markets like the process industry.

For comprehensive IT support tailored to their specific needs, process plants that primarily rely on one supplier for most of their automation hardware and software may wish to engage this preferred supplier for offsite IT assistance. When this option is chosen, process automation and IT professionals can expect a much higher level of service, but at substantially higher costs. Major automation suppliers have large numbers of personnel dedicated to servicing the automation/IT sector, and they bring a much deeper understanding of process automation.

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If your plant uses automation hardware and software from a variety of suppliers, and you need a higher level and a greater range of services than are provided by the typical data backup firm, an automation solutions provider could be your best option.

"Our company provides five basic services from our PlantFloor24 Operations Center: backup and recovery, software updates and patch management, incident management, real-time control system monitoring and online control system edits," says Kirk Norris, the senior vice president for strategic manufacturing solutions at Maverick Technologies, an automation solutions provider based in St. Louis.

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Backup and recovery services provided by firms such as Maverick and by automation suppliers are much more in-depth than those provided by the likes of Google because of their domain expertise.

Software updates are critical for process plants, and each update requires decisions to be made with respect to acceptance and implementation. If updates are ignored, then known bugs will remain, often causing significant operational problems and raising security issues. But blind acceptance of updates can be troublesome too, as an update to one program may cause it to cease functioning at points of interaction with other software.

An automation supplier or an automation solutions provider can provide valuable assistance by testing updates on hardware and software similar to that installed and running in your plant.

"We're able to replicate our clients' entire automation system at our PlantFloor24 Operations Center. We can then test software updates and make sure that each doesn't cause unintended outcomes. After testing, we can work with the client to remotely update their systems" explains Norris.

In a similar fashion, automation suppliers and automation solution providers can provide related automaton/IT services such as incident management, real-time control system monitoring and online control system edits.