It used to be that information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) networks and systems operated completely independent of each other. But in recent years, as industrial manufacturing has become more connected, so have the worlds of IT and OT, converging on the plant floor in new and exciting ways.
The digitization of manufacturing means that a lot of data is being sent and received from numerous different data points and sources. Applications and software packages that connect those data points require more compute space than they’ve ever needed before. Industrial companies are starting to migrate from physical hardware solutions to a virtualized environment where multiple applications and operating systems can live.
Virtualization essentially breaks the link between the operating system and the physical hardware. It has been a more common implementation for new greenfield plants and lines, which are able to start fresh with a virtual environment.
Larger plants have also started to migrate to virtual servers, thanks to large data centers. No matter what size your plant is, the connected plant floor is the future of manufacturing, and virtualization will increasingly be adopted as a priority in the OT space. The server migration trend now allows moving virtual servers from one physical machine to another, and is still at the early stages.
The physical environment is becoming more expensive to maintain, from the valuable space desktops and servers can take up on a plant floor to the power they draw to keep running. And sometimes, the older systems are slower and need to be replaced. This is one reason migration to virtual environments is becoming more common.
The modernization and digitization of the plant environment has also necessitated the use of new applications for many companies. For example, if you’re adding a new PlantPAx® system environment, you’ll need to be able to run all of the PlantPAx applications – and you can’t do that on your old system.
As a controls engineer or IT expert, questions like these may keep you up at night: “What happens if my computer fails, or my software crashes, or if there’s a failure at my plant?” Virtualization can help you sleep easy because:
- It reduces costs. Running on bare metal requires the purchase and use of multiple desktops and servers. Virtualization provides a lower cost of ownership by enabling shared resources on fewer servers, and helps you decrease your facility footprint. In fact, it can result in up to 74% reduced cost of ownership.
- It provides more compute power, allowing you to run multiple applications on just one server.
- It helps avoid downtime, delivering high availability, fault tolerance, and quick deployment and replacement.
- It’s scalable. You can easily scale up and out as needed.
- It’s easier to manage. Whether you and your IT department manage it, or the IT/OT experts at Rockwell Automation manage it, virtualized environments are inherently easier to manage than the alternative. Would you rather manage 50 applications on 50 servers or three servers? Also, virtualization enables you to create templates from which to run new operating systems.
Another benefit of virtualization is the ability to add redundancy, or running the same application on multiple servers as a safety measure in case one fails. In a virtualized environment, redundancy can be implemented using different methodologies from hardware to hypervisor mitigating risk of failure for differing components.
Virtualization: Not If, But When
If you’ve always wanted a single pane of glass visibility over your OT systems and applications, virtualization is a great way to get it. Migration is a trend that is sure to continue, so it should be part of future plans for any manufacturer.
While investing in virtualization will save you money, it’s also a big change – and not a cheap one – that will require education of stakeholders, decision makers, and new technical skills. Typically, virtualization decisions are handled by internal IT departments that don’t always understand the OT world or the criticality of the applications running on the IT infrastructure.
When you’re ready to make that leap to a virtualized environment, find a provider that can help you create a complete, ready-to-use virtualization solution that allows you to focus on the applications it runs instead of the infrastructure. Consider your ability to design, monitor and maintain the solution and the redundancy needs you might have to confirm that your applications are running as smoothly as possible.
Thankfully, there are now options for manufacturers of all sizes that provide a complete ready-to-use IT/OT virtualization solution and include services to help manage, monitor and maintain it.
These include the Industrial Data Center from Rockwell Automation and the new Allen-Bradley VersaVirtual™ Appliance. Be sure to investigate all of your options so you find the one that works best for you.
As the worlds of IT and OT continue to converge, virtualization will enable manufacturers to work more efficiently and do more than they ever thought was possible.