- By Jeff Geiger
- March 21, 2022
Systems integrator Taurus Controls helps their industrial clients move from underperforming traditional technologies to modern, easy-to-manage, and highly available edge computing platforms.
Many industrial automation end users are familiar with the established technologies they already have in place, and they may be reluctant to change during upgrades or for new projects. This can be a factor in any industry, but especially holds true for more traditional sectors like energy production, water/wastewater, steel, pulp/paper, and food and beverage.
However, these types of end users are well aware that a run-to-failure strategy offers little or nothing in the way of alerts and warnings, while requiring immediate and costly responses. Unexpected downtime is a constant specter with these aging architectures. Fortunately, new technologies are making it practical to improve industrial automation availability.
These end users are also looking for ways to take advantage of industrial internet of things (IIoT) capabilities, in addition to improved methods for deploying the typical visualization, data communications, and analytics applications performed by their automation platforms. This requires more computing and connectivity capability, installed close to the field where the data originates. This edge computing must be able to merge information technology (IT) functionality with operational technology (OT) durability and reliability.
Systems integrators (SIs) like Taurus Controls are finding they can help their clients improve the reliability and capability of their operations with highly available and easy-to-manage edge computing. Taurus has implemented several projects with Stratus’ ztC Edge and ftServer computing platforms, and their clients are experiencing the benefits.
Traditional architecture troubles
Most users realize they need improved ways of managing automation assets, especially as older systems age-out and automation expands into more areas, to address these and other issues:
- Aging legacy computer platforms.
- Unsupported operating systems.
- Unmaintained rotating media (hard drives) with finite lifespans.
- Poor system backups.
- Lack of personnel trained to support these systems.
At many sites there are already multiple automation systems, but they remain isolated from each other. End users are becoming aware of the value found in accessing industrial internet of things (IIoT) data from legacy systems, but these types of so implementations require modern computing platforms.
The cost of doing nothing looms large. Catastrophic failures, combined with little or no recovery resources, can easily be five to eight times more expensive than simply installing a modern edge computing platform in the first place. This is true even though the cost of high availability (HA) and redundant solutions are more than for traditional non-redundant systems.
Easy and reliable edge computing
Industrial edge computing is necessary for hosting human-machine interfaces (HMIs), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, alarm handling, data historians, analytics, IIoT, and more. Many sites already use industrial PCs for at least the HMI roles, but some still use commercial-grade hardware. Certainly, IT-type PC redundancy solutions have been available for many years, but they are costly, complex to manage, and not well suited for industrial environments.
Several years ago, the Taurus Controls team became aware of a better solution available from Stratus Technologies. Stratus supports business-critical Edge Computing and IIoT challenges with the rackmount ftServer and the panel-mount ztC Edge platforms. There are many benefits to specifying, deploying, and operating these Stratus systems:
- Real-time online condition monitoring.
- Comprehensive Stratus support for SIs delivering these systems.
- Virtualization support, a necessary feature because virtual machines (VMs) have become the preferred method of deploying and managing automation applications.
- Off-the-shelf support for industry-standard backup systems like Veeam. Stratus-based projects are built to run indefinitely, but many industries must comply with backup and disaster recovery rules and regulations to pass audits.
- 24x7x365 follow-the-sun worldwide support and stock, with replacement parts shipped overnight FedEx. The company is designed to run like the product: always on.
Stratus ftServer is the best fit for larger rackmount installations with server cabinets, a control room or a data center (Figure 1). Stratus ztC Edge excels for smaller and medium tag count projects requiring panel-mounting. The ztC Edge can be installed as non-redundant, and easily expanded to a redundant configuration any time in the future (Figure 2).
Both platforms deliver HA with plenty of computing power for industrial applications, where availability is more important than ultimate performance anyway.
Taurus immediately recognized the value and began looking for projects to apply Stratus. Over the past year, the Taurus team has designed and built four high-performing and compact control systems based on ztC Edge. Following are some examples of how Taurus and Stratus have helped end users sleep better at night by reducing downtime drastically, and in many cases eliminating it completely.
Taurus clients often run traditional HMI/SCADA applications on commercial-grade servers and PCs, and also use PCs as thick clients. These sites usually don’t have data centers, often run into installation space constraints, and commonly have no IT staff on site. These clients have suffered through many computing hardware failures over the years.
To address these and other issues, Taurus has found ztC Edge implementations to be the best option for retrofitting or upgrading these clients. Here is how Taurus has integrated HMI, SCADA, and other server-type applications like historians and thin-client servers for some of their clients.
This project involved converting standalone HMIs into a networked, server-based system using Rockwell Automation FactoryTalk View. This site had limited factory floor space, so the upgrade required removal of three large HMI computer enclosures, and replacement of each with much smaller form factor touchscreens and back-mounted thin-clients. By consolidating seven standalone HMIs into one centrally deployed system, the client has benefited from lower development costs, maximized consistency, and improved the maintainability and backup for the entire system.
Alternative fuel pellet production
As a greenfield project, this application offered a chance to incorporate best-in-class automation technologies starting with a clean sheet. Taurus built the solution on a ztC Edge platform, consolidating all the FactoryTalk View applications into one VM, and creating a second engineering VM for the PLC applications programming. End users benefited from a streamlined installation and operational environment.
Biomass Steam Generator
A challenging installation environment with dust issues caused the existing office-grade computers and rotating media to experience failures. By integrating a ztC Edge system and VMs, reliability was drastically increased, and the system is now more tolerant to changes while operating.
Furthermore, VMs enable the end user to roll back changes to a known-good state if the need arises. Using the native OPC UA communications built into the Stratus system, diagnostics were implemented, providing users with visibility into server health, along with proactive indicators of impending issues.
Whenever possible, Taurus educates end users so they can support their own systems. Some end users have the resources to perform a degree of self-support. However, many depend on Taurus to be the complete solution provider and appreciate the option to keep Taurus engaged as a partner for ongoing maintenance and support via remote connection, or onsite if required.
Virtualization, whether implemented based on existing systems or installed into new projects, is the best way to simplify system management, hardware/software upgrades, and backup/recovery. IIoT capabilities can be added or built into any application using these flexible edge computing platforms. Remote access and management requirements have been accelerated by COVID, are readily addressed with these platforms.
For both existing and new industrial automation applications, Taurus is finding their clients to be less accepting of controls-related downtime. Although some of these clients may be apprehensive about new technologies, they are quickly convinced of the cost-effective benefits of modern high availability edge computing platforms from Stratus. SIs working in conjunction with Stratus are educating end users about the pain points solved by moving away from legacy architectures to modern edge computing solutions.
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