Q&A: Key considerations for designing a modern industrial control system

July 12, 2017

John Fryer is the senior director of Industry Solutions at Stratus Technologies, where he is responsible for go-to-market strategies and industry initiatives across the company’s …

John Fryer, Stratus Technologies

John Fryer is the senior director of Industry Solutions at Stratus Technologies, where he is responsible for go-to-market strategies and industry initiatives across the company’s product lines. He has more than 25 years of experience with industrial control systems and software products in a variety of engineering, marketing and executive roles at successful startups and major companies, including Motorola, Emerson Network Power and Oracle. His experience includes more than 15 years working with high-availability solutions for the enterprise, automation and networking industries.

On Thursday, July 20, 2017 (from 11 a.m. to noon CT), Fryer will lead a Processing webinar, "Best practices to modernize and simplify your industrial control systems.” During this Stratus-sponsored webcast, attendees will learn why modernizing control system platforms is a key step for the future; key considerations for updating automation control infrastructures; best practices in realizing a modern industrial control system; the ease of updating existing applications and adding new ones; how a modern industrial control system simplifies operations and increases efficiency.

The Processing team recently sat down with Fryer to ask a few questions and provide a taste for what will be covered during the webinar.

Q: Why is control system modernization such a hotbutton issue for industry today?

A: With so many new capabilities in modern control system platforms and software, upgrading is one of the easiest ways to get more benefit from existing PLC’s and infrastructure. If done correctly, it also lays the groundwork to easily deploy new applications that can further streamline operations. Benefits can range from platforms that run continuously, predicting failures and replacing parts in advance, to consolidating all applications and using virtualization to manage everything through software rather than managing multiple physical platforms.

Q: How can modern industrial control systems simplify and increase the efficiency of industrial processes?

A: There is often a lot of data that is collected from end points in an automation system, but frequently much of this data is not used by older control systems and applications. With today’s systems, this data, which generally is not used for pure process control purposes, can be accessed to provide actionable intelligence on the performance of a process, or components in that process, such as motors, valves, pumps, etc. With the right kind of analytics, this data can be used to optimize processes and increase maintenance efficiency, for example.

Q: What are some of the key considerations operators should be mindful of when updating automation control infrastructures?

A: Updating automation control infrastructures provides the opportunity to take advantage of the latest proven technology in the industry. Many automation engineers have "made do" with systems that have shortcomings simply because there was no better solution available when the system was originally installed. With that in mind, an automation control infrastructure upgrade provides the opportunity to step back and take a holistic view of the overall requirements, as opposed to the highly tactical approach that many overburdened automation engineers are forced to take in day-to-day operations. This includes not only understanding the software requirements for an automation upgrade – historian, HMI, SCADA, etc., but also considering how to future-proof the compute infrastructure that will support these applications.

Q: What are some best practices that have evolved for designing industrial control systems that end users can apply to today’s systems?

A: At Stratus, we have developed a multi-stage evaluation process to help automation engineers understand what they really need to effectively modernize and operate updated control systems. This starts out with examining the tolerance to downtime and steps through what is required to support these requirements, including recognizing the importance of data collected from the end points. Having established those requirements, equally critical aspects are understanding migration paths from the old to the new, examining the skill sets available and required to complete the transition, and building an ROI to support the appropriate solution. After all, there is no point in upgrading a control system if the transition requires significant downtime, and the complexity of the new system requires new skillsets and significant training to keep it operational, all of which impacts the ROI.

Q: What is virtualization and why is it such a key tool for enabling a simplified and cost-effective control system infrastructure?

A: Virtualization is a well-established technology that is widely deployed in the information technology world. It is steadily being adopted in automation control systems. Essentially, each physical machine in a traditional automation network that runs a single application is transformed into a software "virtual" machine. Using a specialized virtualization layer, called a hypervisor, all the virtual machines run on a single physical server. As far as each virtualized application is concerned, it believes it controls the whole physical machine and it is unaware of the other virtual machines on the same physical device. Consolidating all your control infrastructure onto a single physical machine has obvious benefits; you only need one server, and additionally, because the applications are "virtualized," it is quite simple to implement updates and add new applications, because everything is done in software. Physical infrastructure and networking is simplified, which leads to easier management and maintenance.

The key issue generally leveled at virtualization is that if the physical machine fails, then all the applications fail and unplanned downtime can be plantwide. This is why understanding the overall tolerance to downtime is key and then selecting the appropriate physical platform is critical. It’s why more and more people turn to Stratus, where we provide a fault-tolerant platform that is continuously available. The platform prevents downtime and uses predictive maintenance to identify potential failures, automatically ordering replacement parts that can be hot-swapped by personnel with no IT expertise.

To register for the Processing webinar "Best practices to modernize and simplify your industrial control systems,” click here. For more information about the webcast, watch the video below.

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