Make Version Management a Best Practice

“Version control is absolutely essential in any design and implementation of a manufacturing system. It’s a best practice,” declares Keith Jones, a marketing program manager with Wonderware Inc. (www.wonderware.com) , a Lake Forest, Calif.-based automation software supplier.

The most important first step in having effective version control is to possess a control mechanism to prevent users from simultaneously making changes, believes Gimmi Felice, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada-based product manager for change-management solutions with automation vendor GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms (www.gefanuc.com) , Charlottesville, Va.

Next, have “a repository that can maintain older versions,” suggests Felice. But in using it, end-users need to control check-in/check-out to prevent overwrites. One method is read/write vs. get, explains Tad Palus, asset-management-software specialist with Rockwell Software (www.rockwellautomation.com/rockwellsoftware) , in Milwaukee. “Check-in/check-out is exclusive” and allows changes, while “get” means read only.

In the check-in/check-out process, notification is critical. “When you attempt to do check-out, you’d be notified who owns the file,” Palus notes. But he advises that version-control systems must have the ability to override checkout. Why? “If someone needs to make a change [because of some critical situation], in case someone else has checked out the version, but has not completed making changes,” he explains. But, he adds, overriding must be done only by the system administrator or others with specific permission.

The third tip for effective version control, which comes from GE Fanuc’s Felice, is an audit trail. This fits with the check-in/check-out functionality that Palus mentions. “Typically, it’s the who, what, where, when and why,” Felice says. These five Ws comprise the list of the main things people seek, states Jones. The why, which Felice says is the one human factor in the five Ws approach, “is the information that’s important for the next user who comes along after a change is made,” Felice notes.

Security is another essential attribute. “Security is controlling access to a particular intellectual property,” Felice explains. “There’s a lot of value there [in intellectual property] and you want to protect it.” One tip he gives is to have an approval system that requires authorizations to make, and then implement, changes.

Back-ups are integral to preserving intellectual property. So companies should set priorities that include some frequency of back-ups, where the back-ups will be stored, how they are organized, how changes should be documented, how back-ups will be accessed and who will have access to them, indicates
Eric Kaczor, product manager with the Simatic Engineering Software group within vendor Siemens Energy & Automation Inc. (www.sea.siemens.com) , in Norcross, Ga.

Palus agrees, generally, with the other specialists’ views. But stressing that a version-control system must have controlled access, automatic back-up and the ability to revert to older versions, he suggests companies ask themselves: “Do I even have visibility into intellectual property?” That’s important because “intellectual property embodies your competitive differentiation,” he stresses.

Protecting intellectual property should be a manufacturing priority, Palus emphasizes. “Thousands or tens of thousands of hours have been invested to create a manufacturing system. Hardware components have become such a commodity. But end-users need to manage, control and be able to restore intellectual property,” he says.

It’s about people

Jones recommends that end-users ask about the level of granularity a version-control system has. To him, that means drilling down to the most primitive level to find not just what was changed, but what the change was. And he cautions that “if best practice says that the version-control system can be turned off, don’t do it.”

Ultimately, though, effectively managing software with version control “comes down to people—and people need to want to follow the process,” GE Fanuc’s Felice states. “It’s something you should do automatically and not feel that you’re forced to do it.” 

C. Kenna Amos, ckamosjr@earthlink.net, is an
Automation World Contributing Editor.
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