Virtualization on the plant floor
Getting more from less
Virtualization and virtual machines can improve equipment utilization while reducing expenses.
During challenging economic times, accomplishing more with fewer resources can help manufacturers with their very survival. Virtualization and virtual machines are technologies that are widely accepted in enterprise IT systems, and can help with the operational efficiencies of deploying, upgrading, and maintaining systems on the plant floor. Virtualization consolidates workloads to raise utilization levels and reduce operating, capital, space, power, and cooling expenses. When deploying virtualization on a converged network, manufacturers can gain greater ease of management while boosting application performance.
Ease of management
In a virtualized environment, control systems, servers, and services can be deployed more rapidly than physical ones without requiring hours or days of tedious and potentially error-prone manual configuration. By using role- and policy-based management models available in various unified system management software platforms, such as Cisco UCS Manager, design engineers and control system operators can implement complex changes or new deployments in minutes. This provides greater flexibility to change, upgrade, or reconfigure manufacturing designs on a system. In addition, virtualization allows for efficient remote administration with different views into security and policy implementations that can be extended to the plant floor based on the identity of the remote administrator. Thus, design engineers or control system engineers can administer, upgrade, or move one element without endangering the rest of the overall IT-integrated system.
For example, Cisco’s approach with UCS Manager offers role-based management models to maintain separation of IT and control system disciplines already established with most manufacturers. Using a policy-based model, network administrators can define all networking policies, which can be later incorporated and referenced by server administrators without involving their network administrator colleagues. Meanwhile, design engineers are freed to focus on business process as defined by the manufacturing execution system, rather than on the details of individual system configuration.
Availability and security
Virtualized systems can improve the availability of manufacturing systems, avoiding downtime through techniques such as automatic restart of failed virtual machine instances and automatic fault-tolerant failover to a different virtual machine on the same, or different, hardware platform. In a business environment where downtime equals lost revenue, these capabilities can significantly mitigate the risk of downtime from technology failure.
Security is much more flexible in virtualized systems, and can be managed by policy templates. A common deployment technique is to isolate virtual machines on virtual LANs. With this technique, different systems can have different security levels. Access can be restricted for data which might be reasonably open (analytics), somewhat restricted (control systems), or even severely restricted (robotics).
Virtualization lets you put the power and performance where it is needed. While some people may be skeptical about the efficiency of shared resources, real-world deployments have proven such skepticism as unwarranted.
Virtualization also improves application performance by adapting to changing conditions. If a server application requires more memory or CPU resources, they can be allocated dynamically from idle or unused allotments. Such adaptation is impossible with fixed, physical servers running memory-intensive applications like databases or over-utilized web servers.
Whereas most enterprise systems have a 3- to 5-year renewal cycle, the cycle for manufacturing floors is much longer, typically 10-20 years. Virtualization allows for incremental replacement or upgrade of software or hardware with minimal disruption to manufacturing operations. Virtualization permits better long-term planning, reduced costs, and better return on investment.
A side benefit of server virtualization is that the same infrastructure can be used to provide hosted virtual desktops (HVD). Virtual desktops preserve security by storing all data on the hosting server—only screens are exchanged—so proprietary data remains secure in the data center. HVDs also can allow plant floor managers to bring in remotely located experts via video to quickly troubleshoot problems or provide advice.
Virtualization is a mature technology and has been used in enterprise environments and service provider data centers for many years. It has proven to save both time and money, but reaping the benefits depends on the right underlying business infrastructure. The first step is to build a converged Ethernet network, architected and tested to ensure that real-time voice, video, and data exchange services operate flawlessly together.
Companies such as Cisco, its partners, and others offer manufacturing-specific designs and product offerings that allow you to deploy converged networks and virtual systems with confidence. The benefits of a well-architected converged network extend far beyond the plant floor, enabling manufacturers to bring the right expertise and skill together for greater agility and faster decision making throughout the value chain.
Joel Conover is senior director of industry marketing, manufacturing, retail, and financial services for Cisco.