Upgrade to Controller Virtualization

Louisiana Sugar Refiners uses virtual machines to save energy, reduce time for server maintenance, integrate legacy systems, centralize server administration and enable easier, more secure, remote access for troubleshooting and maintenance.

It’s critically important to stay on top of automation technology trends when you’re operating “the newest, most automated sugar refinery in the U.S.,” said Jody Braud in reference to Louisiana Sugar Refiners’ new refinery in Gramercy, La., where he manages the Automation, IT, and Electrical/Instrumentation departments .

As a joint venture between Cargill and Sugar Growers and Refiners Inc. (SUGAR), Louisiana Sugar Refiners (LSR) employs 355 people to refine non-GMO sugar grown on 277,000 acres across 23 parishes in Louisiana. This translates into roughly 2 billion pounds of sugar refined annually.

When this new facility first came online in 2012, the refinery used Siemens Simatic PCS 7 V7.1. Since then, Siemens has released several new upgrades to PCS 7 and added virtualization capabilities to the latest release (version 8.2) of PCS7 with a one-stop service support for all its hardware and software components. LSR was highly interested in virtualization. The technology’s potential for energy savings, reduced time for server maintenance, shorter backup times, and centralized administration of the servers were key influencers in deciding on virtualization. Plus it allows for easier remote access by plant engineers to perform troubleshooting and maintenance and eased the process of integrating legacy systems from other suppliers.

The energy savings are significant, according to Braud, who noted that, with the new system in place, the data center temperature dropped by 11 degrees. This dramatic reduction in heat generated by computers in the data center was made possible with the aid of virtualization. Using the virtual machine capabilities in PCS 7 V8.2, LSR was able to replace 12 workstations, two engineering stations and four servers with just two servers and a few additional thin clients.

Remote access security concerns are addressed by the fact that user access is restricted to the physical hardware and the virtual OS clients are accessed through the thin clients, which do not have a local hard drive, said Braud.

Using thin clients provides several advantages, according to Braud, including: the ability to maintain PCS 7 on the virtualized server; longer life cycle because there are no moving parts, no fans and very little software installed—which also makes them better suited for harsh environments; configurable USB ports; more compact size; and a much lower upfront cost—about $300 vs. $3,000 for a client computer.

Braud noted that the new servers hosting PCS 7 V8.2 take up 80 percent less space and, with virtualization, have increased application longevity from 5-7 years to 10-15 years. “Plus we now have fewer computers to manage, repair, replace and source by consolidating the physical hardware,“ he said.

The Upgrade Process

In all, there were six stages involved in LSR’s upgrade from PCS 7 V7.1 to V8.2. Those stages were:

  • Project Initiation: This began when LSR realized they were getting further behind on PCS 7 upgrades and Windows XP support was ending.
  • Project Selection: Virtualization was determined to be the “best option due to the cost savings, flexibility of options and upgrades, and ease of implementation,” Braud said. LSR selected the Siemens Virtualization as a Service (SiVaaS) concept which provides a pre-packaged, pretested and supported solution to help reduce time and risk.
  • Project Definition: Braud said the scope of work on this upgrade was developed with Siemens Engineering, which helped LSR identify the critical path for the upgrade and smooth most of the roadblocks.
  • Engineering and Procurement: Armed with a “well-defined scope and schedule developed with Siemens, the exact cost was developed with no surprises or scope creep,” said Braud.
  • Installation and Implementation: Due to LSR’s aggressive production demand and the extensive planning effort, Braud said they were able to “perform a complete system cutover in less than three days.”
  • Operation: Braud pointed out that both operations and maintenance personnel had immediate buy-in and ownership of the system based on their vested interests in the new system and interaction with Siemens. In addition, Braud mentioned that Siemens Technical Support team provided excellent support for all virtualization hardware or software components including third-party components.

A key aspect of the extensive pre-planning done by LSR before installation of the new system involved a three-day FAT (factory acceptance test) at Siemens’ Spring House, Pa., site. The FAT addressed everything from maintenance, engineering and operations to automation and IT.

“We shipped two pallets of equipment up there to simulate every segment of our operation on every controller,” Braud said. “We were able to complete these tests in three days with very minimal problems.”

Beyond operations personnel buy-in into this new system, Braud noted that the IT department has been onboard with the upgrade as well—including the remote access aspects. “We have had great buy-in on this project from our IT department and they are more involved with our control system now as a result,” he said.

The entire project, from receipt of Siemens proposal for the project to cut-over to the new system was just seven months—from June 2016 to January 2017.

Virtualization Benefits

To help other automation engineers better understand the virtualization technologies that were key to this upgrade—and LSR’s reasons for choosing to upgrade—Braud took time to explain the hypervisor, virtual machine and infrastructure technologies that were key to this project.

  • Using Hypervisor ESX(i) allows multiple operating systems to share a single server host. The hypervisor “controls the host processor and allocates server resources while also ensuring complete independence of each operating system,” Braud said.
  • The Virtual Machine is a file that includes an application, PCS 7 and its underlying operating system—Windows 7 or other OSs. “It is called a virtual machine,” Braud said, “because it is independent of the physical environment it uses.”
  • The computing infrastructure involved in this project includes physical servers, storage arrays, RAM and the networks over which they operate. “The hypervisor allows users to aggregate these separate physical components into a pool of sharable resources that can be dynamically delivered to applications when and where they are needed,” Braud said, adding that this is a key capability in the design of the system’s architecture to ensure that sufficient resources are available to each virtual machine.

The Simatic Open OS used by LSR in its new PCS 7 virtual environment enables the integration of LSR’s Simatic S7-1200, S7-1500 and TI-505 controllers, as well as legacy systems from other suppliers, into the Simatic PCS 7 standardized operator control and monitoring system. “It provides us with a higher level of system integration despite our dissimilar controller hardware,” Braud said.

He added that the Open OS provides a uniform Simatic PCS 7 look and feel to the operator environment even while managing third-party controllers. “This gives us a more comprehensive, easy to understand overview of the entire plant due to similar and consistent process control, which also means a reduced risk of operating errors.”

Key to Open OS’s ability to provide this single interface across multiple systems is the system’s Engineering Database (DBA) toolset.

Some of the DBA functions highlighted by Braud include:

  • A type editor for mapping and creating functional blocks of third-party systems;
  • Structure and tag definition of programmable logic controllers;
  • Automatic creation of messages and assignment of priority classes;
  • Export/import for bulk data processing;
  • Definition and classification of the corresponding picture objects on the management level; and
  • Creation of trend displays with the process tags to be archived.
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