Edge Computing simplifies intelligent automation deployments

Case Study: Edge Computing Simplifies Intelligent Automation Deployments
Case Study: Edge Computing Simplifies Intelligent Automation Deployments

Over the years, many aspects of business computing practices have migrated into the industrial automation space. Some common examples are wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi, virtualization, and remote desktop technologies. Redundant computing has also been available in the IT world for many years, but it was expensive and complex, which made it difficult to implement for industrial automation projects.

This has changed in recent years with the availability of the Stratus ztC Edge and Stratus ftServer computing platforms. Now it’s simple to deploy and support highly available (HA) computing capabilities, at or near the operational technology (OT) edge, even in the most challenging locations.

Edge computing is an important capability for many industries and automation projects, especially those looking to maximize the benefits of industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) projects. Additionally, redundant PC computing is required for mission-critical and general-purpose applications.

This article explains why Malisko regularly uses these HA platforms for projects, and even runs its internal development and business systems on Stratus platforms.

The Challenges of Adapting Commercial Technology

Ethernet, Wi-Fi and various forms of PC computing have successfully transitioned from commercial and IT use to industrial OT use. This is partly due to economies of scale, but also due to user needs for higher performance and capacity.

In this sense, capabilities such as high availability, remote connectivity, and operating system virtualization are other examples of commercial technologies that are gaining popularity in the industrial space. However, implementing these technologies has always required significant IT expertise for deployment and maintenance.

In particular, PC redundancy has been very complicated to create and manage for industrial sites. Commercial products are simply not suitable for reliable operation in these locations due to environmental factors. Additionally, commercial products typically have life cycles of less than 5 years, while industrial systems are typically expected to operate for well over 10 years.

In applications where HA PC redundancy was required, some end users and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) attempted to implement various commercial-grade PC-based methods. They generally found this approach expensive, difficult to integrate at the plant level, and difficult to sustain over the long term.

Support industrial needs

Industrial end users, OEMs, and the system integrators (SIs) that support them are very familiar with PLCs, HMIs, and other related devices for equipment automation. They have also become very adept at using various networking and PC technologies to support these projects. However, they may not have deep enough IT experience to build and support traditional PC-based HA solutions.

For these reasons, there is a continuing need for industrial software products that are easily configurable using wizards, with contextual help and clear diagnostics. The ThinManager platform did that for remote connectivity, and it added other features specific to industry needs, with benefits like mobile devices and ghost sessions. In this way, virtualization has been simplified and has become mainstream, and some software vendors provide ready-to-use virtual machine (VM) images.

Now, Stratus has made HA redundant computing platforms accessible to everyone and suitable for all types of demanding applications. Stratus offers ztC Edge which provides teams with a contactless, secure and highly automated edge computing platform specifically designed for edge environments. Stratus also offers ftServer, which is optimized for distributed edge-in architectures and delivers the performance needed to support advanced processor and data-intensive applications, while providing the fault tolerance, security, and manageability required for edge of your corporate networks.

Both models are built more robustly than any consumer or commercial computer. Stratus hardware also offers other benefits, including:

  • Native redundancy
  • Embedded virtualization
  • Self-monitoring and remote connectivity

While both Stratus solutions can operate in simplex mode and act as an exceptionally well-built PC, the real advantage is running them in redundant pairs, which can be located close together or remotely. A simplex configuration can be made redundant at any time by adding additional hardware, and the configuration is very “clickable” through the user interface, so OT personnel can perform minimal configuration.

Built-in virtualization ensures that once the PC is powered on, users can deploy virtual machines (VMs) immediately, without the need for additional licenses and configuration. Many industrial projects, especially those using server hardware, need to deploy multiple virtual machines for a complete solution involving Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) data management, HMI/SCADA visualization, historization, advanced computing, etc.

To handle these types of projects, the hardware is reliable and flexible, with extensive diagnostic and self-monitoring capabilities, making it simple to support. Stratus solutions detect existing or impending problems and can issue warnings locally and remotely. OT personnel can easily support the Stratus system with minimal training because many components are easily swapped out in the field. Remote phone and internet support and monitoring is available from Stratus and/or Malisko as needed, providing even greater confidence to end users.

Basically, either Stratus solution acts like a PC or a server, but delivers exceptional uptime. Malisko has had great success with Stratus ftServer installations, and is now leading with this architecture for new projects.

OEM Integration: Production skids can come from many companies and many countries, using their own standalone Windows PCs, and it is very difficult to integrate many different skids into a centralized system. To improve integration in these situations, Malisko used Stratus and virtualization, and required each skid vendor to develop their system on a virtual machine. Once the skids are deployed in a factory, all virtual machines can be run on a centralized Stratus system hosting ThinManager. Hardware has been decoupled from software using virtualization, and ThinManager provides complete visibility, providing common ground between OEMs and the plant or facility owner.

Badge readers: For a customer, Malisko implemented a badge reader system using ThinManager as an integrated session, which makes it much easier to use in conjunction with visualization and automation systems. The control room has two 65-inch 4K TVs, working with two thin clients that each serve up to four 1080p sessions per TV. This deployment replaces eight traditional PCs, with each of the eight VMs supporting any type of lightweight manager session (HMI, badge reader, IP cameras, etc.).

Scalability: In a pharmaceutical company, there was already an ftServer for a data recording system. Malisko was able to add more virtual machines to this underutilized server to host facility automation systems and building automation systems, and to integrate various OEM equipment that had previously been “islands of automation”. All apps are now integrated and can be easily backed up.

Internal IT: Malisko has transitioned internal automation project development systems to run on Stratus, ensuring zero downtime and zero data loss. For the same reasons, business systems – financial computing and file servers – also run on Stratus. Even if a user doesn’t necessarily need industrial-grade ruggedness, as in this case, Stratus solutions still make sense because of their exceptional reliability.

Conclusion

Stratus offers high availability, high performance virtualization and remote services, all combined with ease of use for initial development and ongoing support. Malisko has used Stratus products with great success for a variety of customer and internal applications and specifies these systems for new projects whenever possible.

About the Author


Steve Schneebeli is Maliscois the third employee of and member of the IEEE since university. Steve graduated from Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. Steve is part of the management team at Malisko Engineering. He is a master of overall system architecture and is passionate about working on diverse and challenging projects while delivering a quality product to every client he works with.


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