Kris Downs, IT/Control Systems Specialist

“Why should we upgrade our legacy plant floor interfaces?” you probably hear from upper management when the topic of upgrading software comes up. Or better yet, IT is constantly emailing that support for Windows XP has ended and the manufacturing computers are at risk and out of compliance!  With your computers at risk, your only option is to upgrade. You tell them that there’s an upgrade planned in the future, but is it budgeted, scheduled, approved?  Usually if the software is just a few versions away from what’s current, there’s an upgrade path in place. If you wait too long though, your upgrade path can be complicated and take significant time.  (Time is money right?). So, what should you do? Well, at this point you have two choices: you can execute the upgrade with your own staff that are already busy with their current workload, and may be unfamiliar with the process or path forward, or you can utilize a firm that is experienced in executing software and hardware upgrades. Great news, I work for one of these firms! Since we’re talking about it, let’s just go ahead and say that you’ve selected us to perform the upgrade. (Great choice by the way!). Below we’ll dissect one of our upgrade projects; discuss what we did, how we executed, and the benefits our client received in addition to upgraded software.

It all starts with a legacy upgrade of six operator stations and associated control hardware. While the system was relatively current, their system used Windows XP or Windows Server 2003; both Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 no longer receive updates. No updating means no new fixes for security holes and risk of bugs/malware, thus the out of compliance Emails from IT. So, the system needed upgrading to Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7. Originally their system had physical servers; however, as we led the project, we decided to virtualize the entire system! Virtualizing servers has some fantastic benefits: easier backups, restoration of servers to dissimilar hardware, and can easily be moved between servers. Thin-clients and Remote Desktop Services (RDS) were also utilized in the upgrade. Our virtual servers would reside on two blade servers, a Dell VRTX product. I have to say that I was very happy with the VRTX platform. It’s a mix of four blades and a SAN all in one. These blade servers would then be located at different locations of the plant to protect against catastrophe or a natural disaster. To add to our already very redundant system, we made sure to have a redundant pair of Remote Desktop Services Servers, Experion Servers, and Process Historian Data Servers. So, if we were to have a complete failure of one of the VRTX Servers, the other can still run the plant with minimal hiccup.

The upgrade that was originally planned to simply get rid of outdated operating systems actually accomplished much more. The system was more redundant than originally discussed by using redundant Remote Desktop Services servers. The system was virtualized; servers are more easily backed up and can be moved between VRTX servers in a pinch, with complete disaster recovery. Their server hardware was upgraded to the most current; so parts are readily available and don’t have a habit of failing. If you want to upgrade your controls software and servers, make sure you do it right the first time and engage the appropriate resources to get the most from your upgrade. Though these projects can be expensive and time consuming, they are 100% worth the time and effort. Don’t forget, the longer you wait, the more expensive it can get!