Virtualizing Automation Software for the Lowest Up-Front Cost (part 2 of 3)

Post number two of three in a series dealing with Windows operating system compatibility with Rockwell Software products and factory automation software in general.

In the first post of this series, Windows 7 or XP or 98 or whatever with Automation Software I explored what options you have for maintaining automation software that is not tested and supported on the Windows 7 operating system. The only options are (1) maintaining old hardware, (2) using Windows 7 and the new XP virtualized machine, (3) learning and implementing a virtualization package, and finally (4) upgrading to hardware that supports the latest Windows OS and automation software that will run on it.

Solution number 1 and 4 in the list above are really not practical. Most manufacturers cannot afford to keep spares for old systems or risk being in a situation where they can’t get repair parts when a key component breaks on a dated system. Most manufacturers can’t afford to upgrade every time Windows obsoletes an operating system either. Besides, most engineers are mindful of the money they spend for their companies but practical. Scrapping a working factory automation system even if it is running on Windows NT is hard for most of us, but when it becomes impossible to find repair parts an old system has to be upgraded.

Solutions that don’t work

Using Windows 7 with the XP virtualization machine, as covered in the first post is an approach that seems inexpensive up front but the real cost might be more than expected. Most automation software manufacturers, including Rockwell Software do not support the new Windows 7 XP Virtual Machine yet. While I have customers that use it successfully in some applications, it is a hit or miss solution.

I have one notebook that I could never make physical connections work with RSLinx drivers. On that same computer I could not get the activation license in Factory Talk Activation Manager to work. Sometimes it works sometimes not. This solution is not free if you never get it to work.

Best solution – Virtualization Software

In this post and the next post of this series I am going to present and discuss what I see as the only practical solution for keeping automation software running despite what changes Microsoft makes to Windows. A number of you that I talk to agree that virtualization software is the only practical solution. Virtualization software allows you to use whatever flavor of Windows you want on the hardware machine by running your automation software on a virtual machine running whatever version of Windows you need for that application.

VirtualBox

The big two in virtualization software are VirtualBox and VMWare. In this post we’ll look at Virtualbox.
Screenshot of VirtualBox
First, VirtualBox is not a supported virtualization package for Rockwell Software. Basically, Rockwell has not tested their software on VirtualBox. In their defense, they can’t test their software on every platform or it would be extraordinarily expensive. Some of you might say it is anyway.

Second, it works. The main problem you may have using VirtualBox is that it is sometimes difficult to get the hardware communication devices captured in the virtual machine. If you are using something like DH+ or DeviceNet as opposed to Ethernet it might be time consuming to get the drivers for those networks and communication interfaces to work. However, I have always gotten them to work eventually.

Logical Systems (LSI), a systems integrator operating in several locations in the US and overseas uses VirtualBox exclusively according to Jim Gavigan (http://www.logicalsysinc.com/contact-us.html). Jim says that LSI uses VirtualBox to segregate software for each vendor they use. A virtual machine is created for each project whether a Siemens installation or a Rockwell installation. They also create a separate virtual machine for each vendors software. Siemens gets one and Rockwell gets a different one.

Some of LSI’s customers used to try to maintain older computers running Windows NT and RSView32 or other products. Spares for each computer were loaded with the software and current version of a project and stored in the spares crib. If something broke, the spare was pulled out of the crib and plugged in as a replacement. This posed a number of problems. For one, every change made to the running system required the programmer to physically load the changes on the spare. Also every time a spare was used it was a challenge to find the hardware parts to add a spare back into the crib inventory.

VirtualBox solved this problem. Now any change made on the running machine is just saved as the new virtual machine. The virtual machine can be stored on appropriate media such as CD, DVD, or USB drive. The replacement computer only needs to have VirtualBox installed and then the replacement virtual machine which is just a file is run on the replacement hardware.

One of the tips that Jim offered was to make sure and take advantage of the Intel Virtualization Technology built into new PCs and notebooks. Make sure and enable the Intel VT in the bios. After enabling it, the Intel VT will improve virtualization software performance. LSI’s blog has an overview of a number of their projects with much more detail.

VirtualBox is not perfect

While integrators like LSI can make VirtualBox work for you, it is not a perfect solution. You have to be willing to tinker with it and you also have to be willing to work through problems on your own or have someone knowledgeable like LSI maintain it. If you call Rockwell Software or most other vendors for technical support on an application you are trying to run with VirtualBox you won’t get help since it hasn’t been tested.

VirtualBox is free to download which makes it attractive (make sure and pick the correct operating system you want to run it on). If you are willing to tinker with it and you are primarily making network connections in your system via Ethernet, then this might be a reasonable solution for you to pursue. If you want to discuss VirtualBox, Jim Gavigan or one of LSI’s engineers would be happy to point you in the right direction.

In the next and last post of this series I will cover VMWare and include links to demos of some of the solutions and a Slideshare overview of the entire discussion.

Post 1 of 3 in this series
Post 3 of 3 in this series

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About Doug Brock

Doug Brock has a broad range of factory automation and wholesale distribution experience and is an expert on the application of the Baldrige Criteria for continuous improvement efforts.
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2 Responses to Virtualizing Automation Software for the Lowest Up-Front Cost (part 2 of 3)

  1. Pingback: Windows Compatability with Rockwell Software | Doug Brock

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