In organizations where IT understands automation enough to operate as a partner that provides service – and not an impediment – automation is more than happy to trust that IT will make life better
What is virtualization?
Di Biase: Virtualization is a method of abstracting an application and the resources required to run it – processor, memory, operating system, storage and network access – from the computer hardware, which creates a pure software instance of the system. Breaking the hardware and software coupling enables users to continue relying on 10-year-old applications and operating-system versions by pulling them forward into the future on current-generation hardware.
Traditionally, computer hardware reached its end of life after three to five years as the warranty expires and parts are no longer available. That’s problematic because system lifecycles for industrial applications tend to be much longer. Additionally, new hardware tends to require new operating systems, which incurs application-upgrade costs, engineering expenses and potential downtime.
How does virtualization impact industrial automation strategy and asset management?
Di Biase: When Automation software no longer has to lifecycle at the same rate as the hardware that runs it, we stop being slaves to the IT hardware lifecycle. With the ability to keep the applications that work running on hardware that works and is supportable, you can spend engineering dollars on software upgrades when it makes sense based on system needs. Software upgrades can happen when new software arrives with a feature you need. You decide the lifecycle. You don’t base the decision on knowing I have to replace the hardware in six months.
What is your favorite example of a tangible, day-to-day virtualization outcome?
Di Biase: Many of the benefits revolve around improving the industrial application availability and reliability. Virtual systems can self-heal in the event of disc failure or a server failure. That’s a very attractive capability in the automation space, where operations run 24-7. No one likes the Saturday call at 2 a.m. that the HMI server went down and production has stopped. Or the back-up HMI server is lost and there is a risk of halting production.
What is the most common challenge to virtualization adoption?
Di Biase: The initial obstacle is often the perception around cost. A virtual system is a higher capital outlay than a traditional physical system. You’re buying better servers. You’re purchasing shared storage, and possibly higher-end networking equipment. But you can justify the higher cost on downtime avoidance alone, not to mention lifecycle avoidance or delays.
How do virtualization and an open networking standard like EtherNet/IP complement each other?
Di Biase: EtherNet/IP does not require proprietary, non-standard EtherNet IP hardware, protocol stacks or software. As such I can build system based on any standard hypervisor, such as VMware vSphere, load it with applications and connect it to the automation network, and have absolutely no issue communicating between my applications and my control system hardware. I can also continue using all the standard tools used to perform diagnostics on both the virtualized sections and the physical network, where control-system equipment lives.
Is there a virtualization early adopter among vertical markets?
Di Biase: Pharmaceutical manufacturing is one industry leading the charge. Most often, it’s within a company where automation and IT already have a phenomenally strong working relationship and partnership. At an enterprise level, virtualization is well-trusted and commonly understood. In organizations where IT understands automation enough to operate as a partner that provides service – and not an impediment – automation is more than happy to trust that IT will make life better.
What other scenarios demonstrate virtualization and EtherNet/IP in action?
Di Biase: Any TCP/IP-based communication protocol extends into a standard virtualization solution very nicely and reliably, with all the visibility necessary to troubleshoot when necessary. Manufacturers also can leverage all the IT-standard resiliency, redundancy and monitoring tools available to keep their control system running. Banks and hospitals, trust these technologies for building systems and move billions of dollars or provide life saving information to doctors and nurses. Manufacturing can apply the same to keep a production floor system communicating, running and making products.