More manufacturers are adopting a simpler centralized information management paradigm based on thin client technology and expect machines to conform.
By Thomas Jordan, marketing lead for ThinManager, Rockwell Automation
A great paradigm shift is occurring across much of the industrial landscape. As virtualization and thin-client technology have matured, more manufacturers are minimizing their reliance on highly-distributed computing in favor of a more centralized approach.
In some ways, this transition reflects the classic “what was old is new again” scenario. Before the rise of PCs, manufacturers accessed computing power via “dumb terminals” linked to mainframes. The terminal, which did not have an operating system, was simply a means to access the mainframe’s processing power.
However, this approach was supplanted by powerful PCs with expansive memory, impressive processor speeds and user-friendly interfaces. As a result, today most plant floors are characterized by a complex network of expensive-to-maintain desktop operating systems.
To better manage their processes, companies are increasingly taking a closer look at industrial thin clients that minimize reliance on PCs. Much like the dumb terminals of old, thin clients do not have hard drives or operating systems — but are built to provide remote access to servers where the processing power resides.
Using modern network technologies and powerful software tools, companies can enable secure, centralized configuration and delivery of applications and content from the server to every PC, thin client, mobile device and user.
In addition, companies that are transitioning to thin-client platforms are expecting OEMs to deliver machines that can play in this environment.
Efficiency, Simplicity and Security
For both end users and machine builders, making the shift to thin clients for content management delivers significant benefits. For end users, reducing the number of operating systems lowers the total cost of ownership substantially. There are fewer software licenses and less hardware to purchase and maintain.
Centralizing the content also simplifies application and device management for end users and machine builders alike. Deploying a new application or patch to a server-based system is more efficient than executing the update on multiple PCs across a multi-machine production line.
Thin-client technology also inherently improves system security. While secure content is accessible via a thin client, all data and programming information is managed and stored on the server. Therefore, content can be modified only through the centralized server — it can’t be accidentally or maliciously breached from a thin-client device.
For additional security, USB ports can be disabled and the Windows desktop eliminated.
A thin-client architecture also provides the framework for expanded ways to visualize machine content, and thereby differentiate a machine. For example, this content delivery and visualization platform allows various thin-client terminals to shadow each other so specific machine content can be more easily viewed anywhere within The Connected Enterprise.
In addition, the platform can aggregate multiple content sources that can be visualized simultaneously on one thin-client device. Content from Windows-based applications, IP cameras, human-machine interfaces (HMIs) and more can be viewed using tiling or virtual screening to provide a truly comprehensive view of machine performance in real time.
Imagine having multiple displays — similar to those available in a multi-screen control room — consolidated and accessible on your smartphone or tablet.
Machine Design and Deployment
So how does a thin-client paradigm impact machine design? Historically, OEMs have approached their machines as self-contained units, with application content managed locally on or near the machine. Transitioning to a thin-client platform requires a fundamental shift to a “centralized” mindset for machine content and storage.
In reality, most machine builders will be able to respond to specifications and execute machine design and development in the same way they always have. However, OEMs must rethink their approach to the factory acceptance test (FAT) and site acceptance test (SAT) in a thin-client environment.
For the FAT, OEMs must simulate the server environment to verify the functionality of their system. Take a look at how this system integrator successfully implemented an FAT using a simulation system and proof of concept demo in a validated environment, and then executed a successful thin client site implementation.
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