Microsoft Windows 10 features may help manufacturers more than recent releases
Nothing lasts forever in the industrial IT world, and the recent release of the Microsoft Windows 10 Technical Preview will again change the way IT systems are used in production. If you have been using Microsoft Windows 7 in your industrial IT environment, and skipped Windows 8, then Microsoft Windows 10 will be your next major upgrade. The requirement to upgrade won’t occur today, or even this year, but the following Microsoft Windows support expiration deadlines will drive upgrades.
Mainstream and extended support for Microsoft Windows XP has expired. Microsoft Windows Vista mainstream support has expired, and extended support ends April 11, 2017. Mainstream support on Windows 7 has already expired, and extended support ends January 14, 2020. While the end of extended Windows 7 support is more than 4 years away, it is a firm deadline and manufacturing IT departments need to start replacement plans.
Plan for IT upgrades 5 ways
The typical industrial company has many more PCs than employees, and it takes years to do a complete replacement, so it is important not to wait until 2019 to start. Manufacturing IT equipment replacement is not a singular event that occurs every 5 years, but is a continuous support activity that needs dedicated resources and budget. Use the time between new releases to plan for the next one, because there is no indication that the continual cycle of new releases will ever stop. Fortunately, planning for IT upgrades follows the same steps as planning for security upgrades, using the 5-step IT-CSI model:
- Identify all impacted equipment.
- Thoroughly evaluate the impact of a change.
- Categorize and prioritize the change.
- Schedule the change.
- Implement and test the change.
Fortunately, the upgrade to Windows 10 will be less burdensome than the Windows XP to Windows 7 upgrade. The increasing use of browser-based interfaces based on HTML 5 means that the underlying operating system is becoming less important. Many newer industrial interfaces using HTML 5 can operate on Chromebooks, tablets, and smartphones in addition to desktops and laptops.
The Windows 10 default startup screen is the familiar desktop on PCs and laptops, so users will find a user interface that is not alarmingly different from Windows 7. This fact alone will make Windows 10 a natural replacement for Windows 7 systems. Most companies will upgrade, not to receive new capabilities, but to maintain a secure and safe system. The sad truth is that systems that are no longer supported will be security risks, and often little new functionality provided by an upgrade will be used.
However, there are some interesting new capabilities that will be available with a Windows 10 upgrade. Two interesting new capabilities for industrial IT users are "Cortana" and Windows 10 Embedded. Cortana is the voice-driven assistant built into the web interface. It provides an AI (artificial intelligence) component that learns as it is used. It is similar to Apple’s Siri and Google’s Now, and it provides important first steps to a real-time operator assistant. An operator assistant can be "always on," listening and looking for problems and patterns that are not normally noticed by operators. With training, these automated assistants can provide situational awareness to your production and maintenance staff.
Forward-looking manufacturing IT organizations can start training a Cortana system (or Apple’s Siri or Google’s Now) to learn about their operational procedures. While the default Cortana welcome pane will show news, weather, and personal interests, an operator assistant Cortana’s welcome pane will include work schedules, meeting schedules, standard work instructions, emergency procedures, and abnormal condition response.
The new version of Windows will also be available in an embedded format, Windows 10 embedded. This will be a command line version, replacing Windows 7 embedded, which is designed for dedicated systems. Microsoft has announced a Windows 10 embedded system for the Raspberry PI, an ARM processer based, credit-card-size complete computer. The Raspberry PI is one of the most popular hobby and prototyping embedded systems. Windows 10 will probably also be available on a wide variety of embedded processors. The combination of Windows 10 embedded and a Cortana interface can provide a framework for truly intelligent distributed automation systems, with each machine or unit capable of learning normal and abnormal behavior. They will be able to communicate to upstream and downstream equipment and respond to conditions that have not been anticipated.
One final reason to look at Windows 10 soon is the offer for a one-year free upgrade for Windows 7 and Windows 8 users. This is a manufacturing IT organization’s opportunity to start early planning for upgrades. Nothing lasts forever, especially not software. Industrial IT organizations need to recognize that upgrades will be a recurring task for the foreseeable future and need to be prepared for changes. Evolving commercial and consumer needs, and an increasing emphasis on security mean that all software vendors will continue to release upgrades, and IT organizations need to organize for an increasingly dynamic IT environment.
– Dennis Brandl is president of BR&L Consulting in Cary, N.C., www.brlconsulting.com. His firm focuses on manufacturing IT. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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