Simplifying Virtualization Without Sacrificing the Benefits

Simplifying Virtualization Without Sacrificing the Benefits
Simplifying Virtualization Without Sacrificing the Benefits

As manufacturers try to do more with less, one of the key hurdles to efficient and effective operations has been the time and cost associated with building and maintaining a robust information technology (IT) infrastructure to support control systems. In the last decade, virtualization has offered the potential to dramatically reduce control system hardware footprint while increasing availability, but sometimes at the expense of software that is difficult to install and maintain—a significant burden for operational technology (OT) teams with little or no IT support.

To reduce IT infrastructure complexity when unlocking the benefits of virtualization, many organizations are considering hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI). HCI reduces the footprint and energy use of virtualized systems, while increasing availability and performance. HCI solutions also offer easy scalability to match the changing needs of operations (Figure 1).

Figure 1: HCI offers all the benefits of virtualization, while further reducing the architecture footprint and energy use of automation systems.

However, not all HCI solutions are created equal. In the industrial space, getting the most from HCI means implementing a system specifically designed for industrial automation applications. Automation-centered HCI solutions provide all the benefits inherent in virtualization, while also reducing the complexity of implementation for control system software applications.

Feature-rich traditional virtual systems

Virtualized systems offer many benefits as compared to a fully hardware-based IT infrastructure, many of which are particularly appealing for industrial automation applications. Virtualization technology empowers an organization to run multiple instances of an operating system (and, as a result, many systems with different purposes) on a single set of hardware components.

As more critical systems transition to digital solutions, server rooms have become difficult to manage, with both space and energy resources at a premium. With virtualization, multiple systems can be hosted on one chassis, dramatically reducing the space requirements and energy consumption.

Moreover, any system on a virtual server can be replicated across the hardware. These system replicas provide a framework for high availability and disaster recovery. If a critical system experiences an error, processes keep running with minimal interruption.

Because virtualized systems offer so many features, the interface for configuration and maintenance can be overwhelming for anything short of a dedicated IT staff. Teams need to evaluate and select the appropriate virtualization platform for their organization, and then pair it with the most appropriate server and storage solutions to ensure it runs at peak performance. They must also confirm it supports all necessary features. Users need to be trained on the virtualization system to ensure they can efficiently manage it and drive the best, most secure performance over the lifecycle of its operation.

Improving virtualization with HCI

Virtualization using HCI offers additional benefits above and beyond traditional virtualization infrastructure, many of which are particularly valuable for the industrial automation space. HCI creates a more unified virtualized system by incorporating compute, network, and storage into a single, tightly-integrated software system to reduce overhead and improve performance. Users can manage the entire platform through a single, fit-for-purpose user interface, making it far easier to manage and scale their virtual systems.

HCI’s software-defined storage eliminates the need for a dedicated storage component and integrates into one homogenous system.

HCI also improves capacity, enabling teams to host more virtual machines in a smaller footprint. This small form factor reduces the space hardware takes up in a server room and reduces energy use of HCI systems compared to traditional virtualized servers. In addition, HCI systems simplify maintenance by eliminating connection points, reducing configuration needs, and removing points of failure.

Custom configured HCI

While HCI offers many benefits in the OT space over traditional virtualization, it is hard to realize all these benefits if the HCI technology is not part of a holistic solution designed for control systems. If an organization purchases HCI hardware for the control system but must leverage and pay a third-party service for dozens or even hundreds of hours to set up the system, the return on investment is reduced.

More importantly, however, the final product will likely be just as, if not more complex than a traditional virtualized system. In an organization managed primarily by automation or OT personnel, a solution set up by system integrators often becomes a system those same integrators must maintain. Complex configurations of the control system to fit off-the-shelf hardware are difficult to set up, and to change when necessary. Such a system can be more complex to troubleshoot and maintain over its lifecycle, increasing total cost of ownership. It will also be more difficult to scale when the organization expands its operations.

With HCI systems custom configured to run on off-the-shelf hardware, equipment can be costly and complicated, frequently requiring a rip-and-replace of the existing virtual platform. Moreover, licensing can be costly and complex, requiring a license for the server, licenses for any systems designed for failover, and licenses for any systems designed for replication.

The value of fit-for-purpose automation HCI solutions

Because operating system and hardware versions cycle rapidly, no virtualization infrastructure is “set-and-forget.” Organizations should carefully evaluate HCI solutions to ensure they choose the best one for their environment. For organizations hoping to avoid the need for a dedicated IT staff to setup and support their virtualization systems—while avoiding downtime when upgrading, scaling, or maintaining solutions—fit-for-purpose HCI is an ideal strategy.

Industry experts are designing automation-centered HCI solutions to simplify the virtualization of control system hardware. By partnering with an automation provider to choose solutions designed specifically for control system technologies, benefits can be realized beyond those delivered by traditional virtualization or third-party-integrator-designed HCI. These benefits ultimately help deliver value across the lifecycle and reduce total cost of ownership.

Automation providers, such as Emerson, offer HCI solutions that automatically handle configuration, allowing users to have the infrastructure up and running the same day they are unboxed (Figure 2). Such systems are ideal for organizations with limited to no IT support, or for operations teams desiring to control their systems independently of IT. These systems also help to significantly reduce the cost and complexity of configuration and maintenance of virtualized systems.

Figure 2: Fit-for-purpose automation HCI solutions, like Emerson's DeltaV Virtual Studio for HCI, simplify setup, configuration, and maintenance so OT teams can take advantage of virtualization regardless of skill level.

Automation-specific HCI solutions come with software specifically designed for control systems that is easy to set up and configure without the need for specialized IT training. With the most advanced HCI solutions, templates and scripts are built in to empower engineers to automatically set up and easily manage the HCI environment and install the control system software, unlocking faster deployment and better standardization across different systems.

Automation system-specific tools help operations teams of any size easily manage the virtualization system across its lifecycle. Engineers simply choose the appropriate host size for the facility, and when the equipment arrives, intuitive wizards guide automation personnel through the configuration process to have new systems up and running quickly.

HCI can grow with a plant’s needs

HCI solutions designed specifically for industrial automation applications help future-proof investments by decoupling control system hardware from the software. Automation-specific HCI environments can grow with the latest available HCI hardware. When a hardware change is necessary, teams simply move everything onto the backup, and then repair or rebuild the new server and move everything to it.

As the organization grows, fit-for-purpose automation HCI solutions continue to deliver value. When it is time to scale up, automation teams simply add more of the same small, energy efficient hosts to the existing network, without needing to shut down the whole plant.

In addition, advanced HCI solutions also use Microsoft Datacenter to simplify the process of licensing operating systems, regardless of the number of virtual machines and how they are used. Users can create as many Windows Server operating system instances as necessary on a given host without needing to secure an additional license.

Simplifying virtualization without sacrificing the benefits

The high availability and disaster recovery benefits of virtualization can be transformational for organizations striving to improve uptime, performance, and efficiency, and HCI amplifies these benefits. To unlock the highest level of virtualization benefits without creating additional bottlenecks in installation and maintenance, OT teams can leverage fit-for-purpose solutions designed specifically for automation.

These solutions not only make it easier to install control systems in virtualized environments, but also to maintain those installations over the lifecycle of the product. This empowers users to control, monitor, and expand their own technologies, while reducing the total cost of ownership for automation systems. HCI-based solutions also allow for easy scalability to accommodate the changing needs of operations.
All figures courtesy of Emerson

About The Author

Uttara Iyer is a product manager at Emerson with responsibility for DeltaV virtualization and DeltaV networking products. In her current role, she has ownership of product lifecycle from initial concept to delivery and leads product development. Uttara has over 12 years’ experience ranging from networks and systems lead engineer to product management, all with with a focus on the industrial automation space.

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