Open Architecture Standards and Vendors: Finding Clarity Amidst the Chaos

Open Architecture Standards and Vendors: Finding Clarity Amidst the Chaos

By Bill Lydon, Editor, Automation.com

Any regular follower of Automation.com will know that I have written a small library of articles on the movement towards open systems and particularly The Open Group, Open Process Automation Forum. With the help of a knowledgeable person I respect in the process control industry, I have received a lot of provided feedback on these articles, especially from vendors.  These comments highlight several of the obstacles, notably the question of necessity, that the open systems effort has to overcome in order to fulfill the mission. Having browsed through many of the comments, I wanted to share a few, in the aim of encouraging more discussion on the topic of open systems, and hopefully provide some more clarity on its importance.

For reference, here are some of the articles that our discussions were centered around:

 

 

The Open Process Automation Forum - A Background

For those that might be new to the article series, the goal of the Open Process Automation Form is to develop a standards-based, open, secure, interoperable process control architecture.   This architecture will be delivered through a collaboration of users, systems integrators, and suppliers.  The Open Process Automation Forum had its first meeting in San Francisco, CA, November 16-17, 2016 with 57 individuals from 30 different organizations attending. 

A major driver for this effort has been the widespread call for accelerative automation technology, along with an ecosystem of suppliers that can leverage the latest technology, similar to what has been seen in the computer, telecommunications, and more recently defense and avionics industries. Now, on to your comments

 

Are Open Architectures Really Necessary?

Vendor

I think if you looked at systems from the 80s/90s, the value prop is there… but todays systems already incorporate many things that are discussed.  And the whole idea of avionics referenced in the presentations being an example seems crazy… what kind of COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) stuff is in a plane?  Do they use just an ordinary off the shelf computer with windows 8.1 to run their cockpit HMIs?   Come on!

Bill’s Response

Actually, many of today’s systems run real-time operating systems software to conform to various open standards on standardized hardware.  The Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) (http://www.opengroup.org/face ) software standards are one example of how the Open Group is facilitating these standards in avionics. When it comes to hardware, the OpenVPX hardware standards are widely used, created by an Industry Working Group of 28 defense contractors founded in 2009 as part of VITA.

This vendor is correct that many systems already incorporate related standards. Board-level standards have been in the commercial computer markets, since early Personal Computers that supported the ISA (Industry Standard Architecture) BUS, and these standards have enabled multiple vendors to provide cards to perform a range of capabilities and interfaces.  Once the market saw the benefits of open bus architecture, it took off despite IBM attempts to replace ISA BUS with their own closed architecture Micro Channel. This incompatible effort was not successful.  Other open bus refinements have since followed including VESA Local Bus and PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) Bus and, more recently, PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express).

Anecdotally, I have been involved in several defense projects throughout my career and have been fascinated to witness some of this evolution to open architecture.   The military has been leveraging open-level board products, starting with Multibus (IEEE 796 bus) years ago, and subsequently with VME (standardized by the IEC as ANSI/IEEE 1014-1987).   In the late 1980s, I was selling Multibus (IEEE 796 bus) boards that were part of a secure Department of Defense global communication system, and which were built with standard Multibus boards from various vendors. This has advanced to where systems are being built with multivendor OpenVPX board level products, and FACE-conforming software is being widely used in avionics and cockpit HMIs.

OpenVPX in Avionics enables multi-vendor systems.

These are not ordinary products but have to meet stringent specifications.   Consider the new trend of higher durability coupled with higher computing power, in today’s cell phones or personal fitness devices.  The iPhone 7, for example, is rated IP 67. Add a rugged case to protect against shock, and I wonder how the drop test comparison between this and a DCS controller would compare?

 

How do vendors differentiate themselves with open standards?

Vendor 

What differentiates the vendors in these other industries?  

Bill's Comments

These standards just set up an interoperable baseline. With them, vendors must conform to specifications including on-time delivery, building requirements, and multivendor interoperability. Yet even with these standards, companies still need to compete on traditional dimensions including quality, reliability, customer service, and value.   Even the breadth of offerings to deliver a complete package can be a competitive and differentiating factor.   Think of it this way, when PCs were built up with plugin boards were people more likely to order a complete Dell computer package, or use their interoperability options to forgo the display card and network card and purchase them from other sources?  In most cases, people bought the package. Yet they still had the flexibility to add other plugins to meet any unusual requirements.  The user was not locked into a single vendor architecture and this broadened the market, enabling a wider range of applications. Everyone benefited.

 

Isn’t DCS already a commodity?

Vendor

You hint at this effort eventually making DCSs a commodity, but couldn’t it be argued that we are almost there?

Bill's Comments

The DCS offerings today are commodity at the sensor level, but not so much at the controller.  Contrast this to the history of unbundling in computer systems.  If the controller architecture unbundles and opens, vendors will do well to decide what compelling values they can deliver to users in this environment.

 

Where’s the Value in Open Standards?

Vendor

Not much ‘new’ in here… still missing the clear value prop for a vendor to do this.  Other than…you have to….because others are jumping off the bridge.

Bill's Comments

Isn’t the motivation for existing vendors, ideally, to best serve their customers?  Okay, so in the real world, the most likely scenario is that vendors that can come to an understanding that the industry is going to be changed and reshaped by new entrants from outside the industry.  Think of what happened to the former traditional powers in the computer industry. It’s going to be a self-motivated change for survival.

In my opinion, the large computer companies that fell by the wayside during the PC revolution lost because they were focused on their traditional competitors, rather than on the customer value that could be delivered with a change in system architecture and the unbundling of systems. Consumers are smart. Once users learned the value of these open architectures and how much more they could create, with multi-vendor applications in their operations, that’s what they wanted.  In the computer industry, this created a host of new winners and delivered devastating losses for many of the traditional suppliers. You adapt with technology, or you lose customers and die. This is true in every industry. The process and automation industries will be no exception.

 

Bill’s Thoughts and Reflections

Anecdotally, I have had the privilege to meet and speak with a broad range of users, who are well aware of the gap between commercial technology and the offerings from their automation vendors.  This continues to greatly concern them. The Internet of Things has moved these discussions to much higher company levels and, in many cases, this has spawned a lot of experimentation with alternatives for historians, HMI's, and process optimization using off-the-shelf technologies.

Regardless of opinion or observation, none of this is a simple, linear equation. Time will tell how it plays out, but it bears repeating. The technology is unprecedented, but the trends are not. And when push comes to shove, your consumers will have no loyalty, except to their wallets. 

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