If you were asked to describe an ideal solution for delivering real-time information about a factory process to the operator, what would it be? Ideally, the device would give you the ability to use the best human-machine interface (HMI) software on the market, and use it with your personal choice of screen, keyboard and mouse. Additionally, the device would require no maintenance other than to be replaced if it fails. This solution exists today.
Virtual desktops have made their way into factory floor usage based on the fact that they can deliver a full Microsoft Windows desktop environment to a user that has nothing more than a display, keyboard and mouse connected to a compact interface box that connects (wired or wirelessly) to a desktop server. You’ve probably started to use virtual servers in the data center already to maximize the utilization of expensive servers and storage. This is just the next step. Using virtual desktops allows you to continue to maximize the utilization of your assets.
The compact interface box is commonly referred to as a “zero” client, as all the heavy lifting is done on the desktop server. Memory, disk and processing are all provided in the data center, rather than on the shop floor. Even the operating system and the application software reside in the data center. The zero client workstation attaches to a virtual workstation session on the desktop server, so it appears that the user is running a standard Windows personal computer (PC).
If a workstation needs to be added to the system, you simply add another zero client, plug in the display, keyboard and mouse, connect to the network and login. If a piece of zero client hardware dies, you replace it, connect up and log back in to the session that is still running—exactly as you left it. The repair process is no more difficult than changing a light bulb.
As long as you have a device that can connect to the network and login to the desktop server, you can get your desktop environment delivered to you. A virtual desktop can be accessed from any device that has the capability of connecting to the desktop server. This includes desktop computers, laptops, notebooks, tablets and the like. Even an iPad or an iPhone can run a virtual Windows desktop.
Software maintenance is greatly simplified. The applications and the operating system are maintained in a single location and maintained as a single entity, reducing the support needed and eliminating the need to touch the factory floor workstation. Patches, new versions and additions to the applications can all be handled on the desktop server, tested in a non-production virtual environment and then when vetted, pushed into production. Even if you release a bad version into production, you can easily roll it back to the previous version. Since all users run from a single production copy, any changes can be effective immediately for all users.
Running a virtual desktop gives you the following advantages:
- Minimize hardware and maintenance on the shop floor—no moving parts, no software.
- Maximize the capability of the HMI—run the full versions.
- Eliminate out-of-date versions on the workstations.
- Administer all software from a single master copy, simplifying updates.
Running virtual desktops on the factory floor gives you better control over the whole system, while moving the sensitive components out of harm’s way. Everything is secure in the data center, where it can be easily and quickly managed. When you find that your operation is using less workstation hardware, incurring less downtime, and needing fewer support staff, don’t be surprised.