Virtualization reaches new depths

As a journalist covering new developments across industry, I so often hear of the “accelerating pace of digital technology” that the phrase, while true, has all but lost its impact on me. But sometimes an accumulation of advances reach a new inflection point that drives home the fact that the world is changed forever—and it’s not slowing down.

One such inflection point for me was at last year’s Honeywell Users Group Americas

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Smart Industry's Keith Larson

conference, where ExxonMobil’s David Patin told the story of how Honeywell had helped the oil and gas supermajor to effectively address the obsolescence of aging distributed control system (DCS) assets across its production fleet—many of which were Honeywell TDC systems installed as far back as the 1980s.

Since the technical obstacles to bringing TDC forward hinged on hardware obsolescence, notably controller microprocessors and communications chips that would no longer be available, the team settled on an emulation approach that would effectively abstract TDC system functionality from the specifics of the older hardware.

Honeywell answered the challenge by introducing a solution that effectively virtualizes the entire TDC control system—hardware, software and all. The old networks now exist as logical constructs on Ethernet. And to address the challenge of on-process migration, Honeywell introduced several bridge devices that facilitate the virtualization of TDC system node functionality—without the need to interrupt the process.

At the time, I speculated on just how far and how fast we as an industry might move if we no longer had to worry about hardware and software dependencies in the operation technology realm.

Fast forward one year, and the company that had virtualized its 30-year-old system in order to protect its customers’ intellectual property investments announced the effective virtualization of its entire control architecture. The Experion PKS HIVE, for Highly Integrated Virtualization Environment, now effectively unbundles control applications from physical equipment, from controllers and from physical I/O as a matter of course.

“An interesting thing about the distributed control system is it hasn’t been distributed,” said Honeywell Process Solutions CTO Jason Urso in unveiling the new offering. Urso drew an apt analogy to how we as consumers interact with virtualized cloud environments. “We don’t care what Netflix server the movie we want to watch is on, and we shouldn’t have to.”

Similarly, the new HIVE architecture brings together a cloud-like pool of control resources that can automatically allocate tasks to available hardware in a seamless, automated fashion. Hardware can be swapped out for old without impacting operations, and new software functionality spun up without compromise. (For more details see article on p8.)

Makes me wonder just what the next inflection point might be.

Keith Larson is Smart Industry's editor in chief. 

Find more from Keith here.