Utilize Remote Upgrades to Prevent Software Obsolescence

Find out what steps your team should consider when implementing plant software upgrades in order to avoid increased downtime and lost productivity.

Jason Anson, Automation Manager at Interstates
Jason Anson, Automation Manager at Interstates

Did you know that software companies introduce new operating systems every 5-7 years? These new operating systems come with a plethora of new features and added security, but maybe you haven’t had the time or don’t want to make the switch to a new system due to financial or safety concerns during a pandemic. Do you really have to? Technically, maybe not right away, but when software companies release new software, they typically stop supporting the old systems – they call this end of life. Some common examples include SQL Server 2008, which became obsolete on July 9, 2019, and Microsoft Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008, which hit their end of life on January 14, 2020.

If you aren’t sure when your plant’s systems will reach their end of life, you’re not just missing out on new functionality. Failing to update will leave you vulnerable when patches and critical security updates are no longer available. The bad news is that putting off updates will leave your plant susceptible to increased downtime and lost productivity. The good news is that these essential updates can be done remotely, and for less money, if you find the right company to help you. Before deciding on whether or not to move forward with an upgrade, there are a few things you should take into consideration.

Determine Your Risk
At a certain point, hardware must be updated or replaced alongside software. As operating systems become more sophisticated, they need compatible computers. If the PC that runs your HMI breaks while running an obsolete OS, you cannot purchase a new computer with that same OS. You need to stay up to date with software so that in the event of computer hardware failure, you can replace it and be up and running again with minimal downtime. The difference between a 2-hour downtime fix and one that takes two days is significant.

Consider these questions:

  • How much is your product worth?
  • How much availability do you have in your production schedule if downtime occurs?

A plant that runs 24/7 making a high-value product can’t afford to be down for very long. Scheduling your downtime is a lot more cost effective than waiting for something to break. Many plants don’t run at night or on weekends, so it’s easy to schedule obsolescence replacements without disrupting production.

Planning and Implementing Upgrades
An upgrade requires the plant’s process to be down so any old computer hardware can be replaced with new hardware. The new applications, which have already been tested offsite, will be installed and tested at the plant as production starts up again.

Virtual computer systems, developed in the last 10-15 years, have improved the downtime window and are ideal for testing new systems. They allow programmers to turn off a virtual image or file that behaves as an actual computer and turn on the newly loaded and prepared image, which then runs on the new OS. It’s important to note that virtual images reduce the risk of upgrades. On a virtual image upgrade, you power it down and power up the new, upgraded image and begin commissioning. In the event of issues, you are able to power down the new image and power back up the original image and then regroup if needed with little effort.

Not every upgrade requires new hardware. With virtualized replacements, servers are used and have a longer life span. Additionally, some server hardware can be replaced while production remains running. Older systems and smaller production facilities running on a computer desktop and not a virtualized system generally require a computer replacement.

Remote Upgrades
The pandemic has forced companies to adapt in many ways, including pivoting to remote work when possible. Programmers can use VPN access to offer remote support for process problems or small updates like remote OS and application upgrades. Instead of sending two people to site who would then have to suit up and follow any mandatory quarantine rules related to travel, upgrades are handled remotely with the assistance of plant personnel.

If your plant doesn’t allow outside contractors on site or keeps visitors to certain, restricted areas, remote upgrades to combat software or hardware obsolescence are a smart choice. Engineers won’t have to travel to your location, avoiding lengthy quarantine protocols and saving money and time. Not paying for rental cars, hotels, or flights makes a huge cost difference, and this option makes sense even without a pandemic forcing your hand. Scheduling is more flexible with remote upgrades, as well. As long as you have “boots on the ground” or someone at your plant to facilitate the upgrades, the remote option is a good one. Make sure you choose a company that has targeted experience and longevity in obsolescence replacements.

The entire point of addressing software obsolescence is risk mitigation. You need to weigh whether you can handle the risk of a piece of hardware going down and not being able to replace it. Don’t underestimate the benefits you’ll gain from the new functionality that comes with up-to-date software, either. Just like consumers upgrade their phones, plants need to upgrade to stay consistent with production and gain new functionality. In a day and age where this can all be done remotely, it’s simply smart business to keep on top of upgrades and avoid downtime.

Jason Anson is an Automation Manager at Interstates, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). With experts specializing in server hardware, operating systems, and PLC/HMI support, Interstates has depths of expertise and resources to help you with plant upgrades. For more information about Interstates, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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