Visualisation: the future is here

Steve Leech, product manager of process automation at Siemens Industry takes a look at an emerging trend within the process sector - virtualisation - and assesses the arguments for and against its adoption by industrial users seeking operational and cost efficiencies.

The subject of virtualisation has come increasingly to the fore in recent years as technology advancement has helped drive both its capability and growth.

You cannot appreciate the current status and potential benefits of a virtualised solution in the industrial world without first understanding how hardware and software technology has developed over recent years, in particular, physical hardware, operating systems and applications.

Historically, the demand from operating systems and associated applications has always been greater than could be provided by hardware. Typically, users were faced with a situation where the RAM, the processing power and the hard disk requirements were often insufficient to deliver the required performance of the operating system and applications. Achieving significantly improved hardware performance came at a cost, and was, in many cases, a difficult investment case to make.

As technology has developed over recent years, hardware performance has improved and corresponding costs to obtain the required standards, markedly reduced. Hardware has evolved to allow more available resource to run demanding operating systems and applications and presently can outstrip system and application needs. Crucially, alongside this, costs have come down bringing such solutions within reach of the wider industrial community. RAM is now available in multi gigabyte sizes, multi core processing power is standard and hard disk storage is now in terabytes. With operating systems and applications able to exist within the hardware platform with minimal impact on resources, the ability to run numerous operating system environments and applications from a single hardware platform is now a reality for many.

Demand grows as costs recede

Users are creating the demand to utilise multiple operating systems and varied applications and there is a natural reluctance to compromise on choice or performance. While in personal use the internet and cloud-based operating systems and applications can be run seamlessly on our chosen hardware, in the industrial world the potential scenario where a number of hardware platforms are required is commonplace. This is where the virtualised approach allows for a multi operating system and multi-application environment to be run on a host system removing the issue of multiple hardware platforms.

It is clear to see that the explosion of applications and operating environments has led to an increased thirst for data. Data centres used in the banking sector or for hosting consumer cloud based services such as iCloud and Google Drive are now the norm and their optimisation has been pivotal in the drive for virtualised systems.

Momentum for the take-up has been cost reduction benefits. These can be achieved simply through the reduced space requirements to house a virtualised system when compared to a conventional one. Cost is also slashed in fixed expenditure areas such as heating and energy bills as a result of centralising the IT infrastructure into a virtualised server environment. Figures of up to 80% in energy savings have been estimated as a direct result of data centres adopting this approach. The other area of cost reduction is in system management as a consequence of a standardised, centrally co-ordinated approach to IT. It means simple, low cost terminals can be used as the main tools to operate the data centre.

Pros and cons

Like all technology solutions, virtualisation has its advantages and drawbacks. It will be for individual industrial users to determine whether or not its adoption is the correct strategic decision for them.

In terms of arguments for its selection, six key areas are worthy of consideration.

  • Security – a virtualised system can provide greater security and reduce the risks associated with industrial IT security. Through the use of remote access with centralised rights management, the chances of cyber-attack are minimised
  • Flexibility – by using a single host system to run a number of different applications, flexibility is increased
  • Long-term stability – with the typical life cycle of a traditional approach including computer hardware, the operating system and the version of the control system (in a process control environment), the decoupling of these life cycles contributes to the creation of a more stable and longer-term solution
  • Total cost of ownership (TCO) reductions – TCO can be reduced by adopting a focused approach to administrative work on a virtual system through centrally performed activities such as updates and backups. As a result, the system only requires very simple PCs to operate the front end
  • System upgrade and update – the effective deployment of new software using prepared templates and images provides an operational efficiency opportunity to simplify the upgrade and update process. By pre-testing the updates in a controlled environment, the impact of a change is significantly reduced
  • Standardisation – a prime benefit of a virtualised system is the ability to clone an environment. This enables fast and easy cloning of key elements such as servers and clients. They can be tested and further developed before deployment as a standardised system for a companywide roll out

While the benefits above are clear, nonetheless there is also a counter argument for rejecting the virtualised approach. Some of these issues include:

  • Higher initial IT investment – while the TCO can be seen as lower, the trade-off for this is the initial higher cost of investment into a suitable level of IT infrastructure. As well as the hardware platform, additional elements such as cooling and air conditioning have to be factored in. Thought also needs to be given to the cost of the virtualisation software and requirements such as maintenance contracts
  • Discontinued support – in a virtual environment, legacy systems including patches and virus scanners are still capable of running long after products are discontinued. This could result in a plant being operated based upon technology that is no longer supported by the vendor
  • Data security – if the decision is taken to adopt an offsite, virtualised solution, managed by a third party, attention needs to be given to where vital data is held and who has access to it
  • Distributed responsibility – in a virtualised system running for example a process plant, there exists a triangular relationship between the host system supplier, the virtualisation software provider and the process control system provider. Responsibility if an issue occurs or if costs are incurred can become a problem. This is not an area of concern in the more traditional approach as the responsibility in this case lies solely with the process control system vendor
  • Skills – with an increase in system complexity, the requirement for highly trained IT specialists is increased both to understand their own area as well as an industrial production environment so that any decisions do not adversely affect production
  • New chances and sources of error – the opportunity exists to introduce new chances and new sources of error into the system driven by an increase in the overall complexity and shifting of functionality to an IT environment.

Industrial users need to weigh up the ‘pros and cons’ for their particular organisation and assess whether the virtualisation route is the right one for them.  What is clear is that thanks to technology advancement and cost reduction, the concept of a virtualised operating environment can now become a reality for many organisations who thought the benefits it delivers were previously beyond reach.