The Expansion of Thin

For a couple of decades, the personal computer (PC) has been the workhorse of computing and has appeared almost everywhere in the factory and plant environment.

Jim Pinto
Jim Pinto

But, with all of the failure-prone components in traditional PCs like fans and hard drives, plus all the time it takes to keep the operating system up-to-date, the PC-centric period is winding down.

With the adoption of technologies like terminal services, virtualization, virtual desktop interface (VDI) and the like, a shift has begun to replace the traditional PC with a modern diskless, fan-less thin clients—no hard drives, no storage space and no programs to upload or update, in many cases not even a resident operating system. Most major suppliers now supply “thin-PC” hardware.

Thin-client computing easily maintains computer services at a drastically reduced total cost of ownership.  It delivers vastly improved productivity at a lower cost, eliminates non-work related computer usage without compromising manageability. Complexity moves to the datacenter, which dramatically lowers IT costs and vastly improves reliability and security.

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Today’s plant managers and automation engineers must manage all the devices and applications that are distributed everywhere. They need a software platform that can manage real and virtual resources and allow applications to be easily distributed to the right person, at the right location, at the right time. With thin-clients, that is exactly what ThinManager does.

The developer of this groundbreaking software is fast-growing Automation Control Products (ACP) (www.thinmanager.com), based in Alpharetta, Ga. The company continues to introduce a series of exciting new features and functions in response to enthusiastic end-user demands. ThinManager 6.0, the latest release, includes a new iTMC app that turns an iPad into a true thin client. A USB to VGA adapter allows an additional monitor to be used via the USB port of a thin client. XManage service allows a secure connection to any ThinServer over the Internet.

Using ThinManager, plant operators and management personnel can see what any system is doing, not just near the machine or system, or from the control room, but also from any location. Information and displays can be accessed from anywhere with thin-clients, and also with smart-phones or tablets. Secure Internet access allows review and management of systems from locations many miles or time zones away.

Enhanced Security
Stuxnet and related industrial-system security problems has made everyone aware that multiple access points through non-secure interfaces like USB ports, SD card slots and CD/DVD drives can be serious problems. Most thin-clients have no CD/DVD drives, though some might have USB slots. By default, ThinManager disables all USB ports on the thin clients that it manages. This alone prevents introduction of any external worms or virus.

Of course, full desktop-computer access does create security issues, even in thin client environments. But, ThinManager can be configured to deliver only the authorized applications that a user needs to do a particular job. Only authorized users can access specific applications and unauthorized users are locked out.

What about the possibility that a user can acquire another user’s credentials? This is avoided by attaching a simple IP camera to every client and every process. Overlay of camera feeds on a screen provides real-time visibility of user access and live processes. Actually seeing who is logged into a specific terminal allows the ability to prevent damage. Indeed, this is the ultimate defense against rogue system access.

I’ve been proclaiming that industrial automation is overdue for a revolution. Perhaps ACP ThinManager is the precursor of new and exciting paradigms that will bring about just such a transformation.

>> Jim Pinto is a technology futurist, international speaker and automation industry commentator. You can email him at jim@jimpinto.com or review his prognostications and predictions on his website: www.jimpinto.com.

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