The Future is Virtually Here

March 17, 2011
What's leading to virtualization? The IT Industry Looked for Ways to Manage Costs, and Came Up With the Idea of "Server Farms"
By Greg McMillan and Stan Weiner

Greg McMillan and Stan Weiner bring their wits and more than 66 years of process control experience to bear on your questions, comments, and problems. Write to them at [email protected].

Stan: Anyone who has to deal with viruses, spyware, networks and obsolete computers can appreciate a solution that makes these problems virtually prehistoric.

Greg: I thought about adopting a teenager for onsite IT support, but then I realized children are also the best source of viruses from gaming sites. Then they leave to create their own life, and you are left helpless and clueless about a system with special features.  

Stan: Our interview this month, with James "JJ" Moore and Mark Nixon, both of Emerson Process Management's DeltaV R&D ( division, is an eye-opening venture into the future of virtualization. Virtualization will free us to focus on what we have to achieve, contribute and enjoy, rather than on solving an ever-changing smorgasbord of software and hardware problems. 

Greg: What's leading to virtualization?

Mark: The IT industry had been looking for ways to manage costs, and came up with the idea of "server farms." You don't need a purchase order to add a new user or to a buy new PC. There is a big total cost savings, and you have a system that is easier to maintain, upgrade and secure.

Stan: What does the user have?

JJ: The user has a "thin client" not much bigger than a handbook and that costs less than a handbook. The direct-IP-address type of thin client can be plugged in and commissioned in a matter of minutes. Alternately, the box could have an operating system and remote desktop with access into an assigned virtual machine (VM) on the server farm. 

Greg: I could see how the VM provides not only access to the latest and best software, but also proprietary applications that can be used company-wide rather than pigeon-holed in a specialist's office. If you look at simulations as a depository of process and control system knowledge, making them available to R&D, design, operations and maintenance immensely increases their value.

Stan: We started with centralized computers and terminals in the 1970s and then went to personal computers. "Server farms" and "thin clients" sound like we are going back to that 1970s concept. Why?

Mark: It became obvious that the cost to IT and the loss in efficiency by the user that results from continually having to keep each user's PC at the highest performance level was getting out of hand. A Dell computer goes on the obsolete list in nine months. Software companies offer new versions yearly. Security updates are weekly.

Greg: My first concern is what if I need some special software? But, if every conceivable software application is available via a VM and I can get to it anywhere, who cares? I guess I'm ready to relinquish control, realizing I no longer have to deal with security, upgrade or backup issues.

JJ: There are other benefits. You don't have to wait for a new appropriation request, purchase, and setup of new PCs. The recovery of a VM is easier than a PC. You can put a VM on a USB device. The uptime is as high as desired by having more servers than needed in the server farm. Servers can be replaced or added without any interruption to the user. The energy consumption and footprint is smaller. Virtualization offers "IT in a box." The companies' wealth of IT expertise is available in the VM.

Stan: What applications are ripest for virtualization?

Mark: We see users ready for virtualization of engineering systems and operator training systems (OTS). For engineering systems, virtualization of the distributed control system (DCS) enables the team to backup, restore and test configurations and operator graphics for existing and new plants. Online upgrades are faster and easier. New plant design, checkout and start-up time is reduced. The virtualized DCS is identical to the actual DCS. Configuration can be exchanged by the import and export of files, and graphics by the simple copy and paste of files. The simulation, configuration and graphics used in engineering are now the basis of an OTS. If a simulation was enhanced by first-principle models for developing control strategies, these models offer process and control knowledge to elevate the operator understanding and role in plant performance, even if it's just keeping the controls in automatic and to avoid making the control system the prime suspect when there's a problem.

More first-principle models can be added in the OTS that would benefit the engineering and maintenance teams in troubleshooting and process control improvement. The VM offers a significant synergy opportunity between engineering, operations and maintenance that might extend to R&D if we can put the VM in an Apple OS (just kidding). You can build an OTS on one server running virtualization as the core and many operating systems on top (one for each operator). Thin clients instead of PCs offer a low-cost solution.

Greg: What about taking it the next step and using the VM for portable operator systems?

Mark: Portable operator systems are already used in labs for pharmaceutical R&D. Wireless instrumentation and process equipment on carts with quick connects to utilities enable the entire experimental setup to be moved for maximum flexibility. Pharmaceutical plants are now putting the operator back in the field through the use of portable operator systems in production units. The conducive field environment, need to take samples, ability to set and verify valve setup of complex piping systems, use of portable sterilization units with quick-connect flexible piping and the replacement of liners in single-use bioreactors make this an attractive possibility. 

Stan: What about failures in the field?

JJ: The thin client can be replaced in five to 10 minutes. The VM stays up. An operator can go out with a hardened laptop and connect to the VM while the thin client is being replaced.

Greg: What about using a VM to control a process?

Mark: If you consider the problems some users had with noise, "hot backups" and uninterruptible power sources, the extreme redundancy and protected environment of a server farm may be more attractive. Using wireless instrumentation can eliminate many of the EMF noise problems. Whether online control is virtualized remains to be seen. In the meantime, there is support for virtualizing the CPU that is part of the I/O system. Entire I/O systems without I/O are possible.

Stan: Will there be fewer IT people?

JJ: Often the long-term result of breakthroughs in technology is not so much the elimination of people, but the elevation of their role and their contribution, especially as the technology opens up new opportunities. Instead of IT people running around securing, upgrading and maintaining thousands of PCs, they can focus on a reliable, advanced server farm. This will require more of a working relationship between the users and IT on an application level. We see IT and users becoming more of a team, and we see the wide spectrum of users in R&D, design, testing, training, operations, marketing, technical support and maintenance on the same screen as they contribute and have access to the knowledge in the VM. Often overlooked is that the best way to transfer knowledge or sell an idea is via a dynamic demo. Virtualization enables a universal use of process control demos that can live on as self-learning labs. (See

"Top Ten Reasons for Virtualization"

10. No desire to do a reality show of your life with PCs
9. A permanent vacation from pesky PC problems
8. Save the environment and get "green" points and publicity for a sustainable system
7. Proliferation of clones rather than clowns
6. Recovery so fast you don't even have time for a coffee break
5. Demos so convincing you have to calm down the audience
4. 3-D graphics that reach out and grab you
3. So much room on your desk you offer an inviting display of doughnuts to coworkers
2. A chance to be "thin" despite the doughnuts
1. "IT in a box"