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How Decoupling Hardware and Software Extends Automation

Schneider Electric’s Michael Martinez explains how decoupling devices from software allows you to extend the life of automation systems while also improving their availability, scalability, and performance.


Quick hits:

  • Understand how closed, proprietary systems can force upgrades before they’re really needed.
  • How virtualization can extend the life of automation systems.
  • Enabling the portability of automation software across devices using containerization.

Related to this episode:


David Greenfied, Automation World: One thing there, Michael, I wanted to touch on, you mentioned, decoupling hardware and software and this concept of decoupling we've seen coming up again and again over the past few years—probably most notably with MQTT, and how it decouples applications to get data from devices so it doesn't negatively impact the performance of those devices. Can you explain this decoupling of hardware and software as it applies to the Universal Automation that you're referencing?

Michael Martinez, Schneider Electric: Absolutely. So there's really kind of two ideas behind decoupling here, and one is the idea of virtualization. So we're familiar with virtual machines and virtual hosts, you know, being able to decouple the operating system and the applications that run on those operating systems from the actual hardware itself. So in many instances, you know, if you've been operating on proprietary control systems, you'll know that the operating systems—the applications—are tightly coupled to the version of hardware that you're running. And so in many instances, based on the lifecycle of the hardware itself and/or the lifecycle of the operating system, you may be compelled to change hardware or software for no other reason than lifecycle. So this is why it's been a challenge in the recent study that we found in terms of digital transformation, to invest in these technology, because you're really simply replacing one product with another product for no additional return. So this becomes very difficult. And so the idea of virtualizing a workstation or server, and putting that on a piece of hardware so that that operating system and applications can be managed separately, independent of the hardware it is on now, obviously, that comes with its own challenges and risks associated with the porting of the operating system and cybersecurity concerns. But it does allow you to extend the life of those applications and not be compelled to upgrade or modernize your system until you identify what that return that you expect to get from the from the application update is.

Secondly, I would say it's the idea of containerization. So today, we couple our controllers and the embedded software that runs on those controllers in a way that, similar to the workstations and PCs, that as these controllers age or as you want to add new features, you have to change out your hardware; and in many instances, do firmware updates and such. The idea of containerizing allows us to take all of the benefits of the controller and put them into a software package that now can be hosted on different types of hardware. And so that idea of having a containerized controller now allows you to think about it, not only as being able to separate from the lifecycle requirements of hardware, but new architectures. So the idea of being able to host a controller in a data center type of architecture, or even closer to the edge or even in an intelligent instrument or device, this gives us whole new ways of thinking about architecture. And it actually allows us to start to think about scalability, availability, and performance in a whole whole new way. I think that's going to bring a new, new way of thinking to automation.

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