OPC UA Makes Cloud Computing Possible.

For someone accomplishing hundreds of control system projects it is not easy to accept the fact that we have adopted most innovative solutions from business technology. Unfortunately, first a programmable calculator was produced and later after that the programmable controller (PLC) appears, first the personal computer (PC) was used to prepare invoices, and later after that SCADA was deployed on the PC. This post is about adoption of the Cloud Computing concept by the process control industry and requirements that must be fulfilled to apply safely this concept.

The cloud concept becomes more and more popular in the – we call them disdainfully – office suit, but more officially business management applications. Maybe it also could be widely adopted and will give us new arm to further improve manufacturing efficiency index including cost reduction and improve availability of utilities.

Applications are traditionally classified as:

  • Business management
  • Process management

Customers Relationship Management (CMS) is a business management application, but controlling a process using PLC is an example of process management. As a rule we do not try to discover relations and possibility to integrate functionality of applications like that. It is like a myth – they have nothing in common – that’s all. Really? Writing this sentence a concept of Smart Grid comes immediately into my mind, where optimization of energy consumption is located mainly on the customers’ site – energy consumers.

The above example is used to illustrate as the highly distributed measurement environment can be offered as a service.

Cloud Computing is defined as a method to provide a requested functionality as a set of services. There are many examples that cloud computing is really useful to reduce cost and increase robustness. Following the Cloud Computing idea and offering control systems as a service it is required a mechanism created on the service concept and supported abstraction and virtualization – two main pillars of the Cloud Computing paradigm.

In my opinion, it can be obtained as the result of set up this mechanism on the foundation of OPC Unified Architecture (see also OPC Unified Architecture – Main Technological Features) that is out of the box solution derived from the Service Orient Architecture principles. Therefore we can say that it is service centric solution.

Thanks to OPC UA standard we are able to abstract the process control as the OPC UA Address Space implementing selected, process oriented information model. Address Space is very useful to offer selective availability, as a means to manage the process representation and scope of its exposition to the users – OPC UA Clients.

In Cloud Computing concept the virtualization is recognized as possibility to share the services by many users. OPC UA server is a publishing mechanism exposing process data and meta-data to unlimited number of clients, and therefore it fulfills this requirement as well.

Multiuser dynamic and global environment causes a risk of unauthorized access and concerns about how cloud reliability and security could threaten manufacturing stability. Because OPC UA engages public key infrastructure – the strongest widely used authentication mechanism – the process can be protected against any cyber attack.

All the above lead to the sentence that process control community is well equipped to adopt the Cloud Computing and take advantage of new features that open new fields of applications. The only open question is if the process control community is ready to put trust on the new emerging technology.

See also:

Embedding Agile Principles as Contract Rules

Agile management is recognized as a methodology that helps us to guide software development projects towards the most valuable outcome possible. The methodology well accommodates inevitable unpredictability of the project that adversely affects the expected results and workload assessment. It is, therefore, a good candidate to be applied to high risk innovative research projects based on a contract. Methodology extension and tools based on the business processes modeling are proposed with the aim of harmonizing and embedding agile principles as contract rules.

This proposal is based on the experience gained while managing variety of innovative process control and business management projects. For these and similar projects, their scope definition and budget estimation in advance have always been the most challenging task. Typically, if the estimated budget of any project is higher than the other ones, the solution provider is recognized as inefficient in one way or another. But there might be another reason if innovative projects are concerned, i.e. the provider’s know-how and extraordinary experience make a better assessment possible. Better always means higher in this context and, in a typical bid where budget is the most important factor, it puts the solution provider in an underprivileged position and leads to the “more stupid the better” syndrome.
For an innovative project, the main reason why its critical parameters are hardly predictable is its innovative nature. From the definition, an innovation as a translation of an idea or invention into a product or service that creates value is an exploration into unexplored areas. The leader of the team must, therefore, face up to a high level of uncertainty.

The main aim of any invention result application is to further satisfy the needs and improve selected processes. But in all cases it is a business process involving at least two organizations: a customer and a solution provider that must cooperate under a contractual relationship, i.e. a voluntary, deliberate, and legally binding agreement between them. The contractual relationship is evidenced by an offer, an acceptance thereof, and a valid (legal and valuable) consideration.

To make the procurement process transparent, fix-price and fix-term offers are usually expected to simplify the comparison and selection of a bid for contract award. As a consequence, the quantitative nature of the comparison relaxes the responsibility of the target company (customer) management involved in the selection process, which makes the selection process offer centric and neglects uncertainty of the proposed terms. In some circumstances it could cause an assessment of just a “wish list”, but not a realistic proposal and leads to circular impossibilities:

  •  It is impossible for the customer to prepare the specifications because it is unaware of the necessity of exploration.
  • It is impossible for the solution provider to prepare the offer as the specifications are inadequate and the unanswered questions can be addressed and worked out as project goals only.

The procurement issues described above could be partially solved using direct negotiations or the single-source acquisition method. Unfortunately, both “suffer from” the qualitative nature of the selection process and usually are an exception to the typical procedure. Nevertheless, as the quantitative assessment is difficult or even impossible, they might be a better choice.
The discussion about the procurement process is out of this post scope. However, in spite of the selected procurement method, the question how to limit the budget, determine the time frame and define the expected scope and quality in the contract is still open.

A new methodology is required to address this question. Its implementation should be non-invasive and effortless but, if strictly observed, it must control the development process to minimize the price-to-performance factor and assure meeting of the customer basic requirements.

For the problem described above, I propose a methodology framework that tightly couples:

  • Agile management to dynamically control the work scope and time framework.
  • Workload tracking to precisely control the value for money.

This method is also proposed to be deployed using supporting tools developed on the process model basis to make the deployment straightforward.