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.

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Windows 7 or XP or 98 or whatever with Automation Software (part 1 of 3)

This is the first in a three part series on dealing with Windows operating system compatibility with Rockwell Software products and factory automation software in general.

Damn the OS – Long Live the OS

Frustration (was: threesixtyfive | day 244)

You know how hard it is to keep up with software versions. Every time Microsoft makes a change all of the factory automation vendors have to try to adapt. Every new version results in some incompatibility issue with a Windows operating system. It’s a big head ache to try and manage. I know because you all constantly tell me.

I would hate to guess how efficiency in manufacturing is negatively impacted by all of the controls engineers and techs fighting the operating system beast, but it has to be huge. We all want to take advantage of new features in software packages from Rockwell Software and others. But if it takes a half-day or full-day or more to get software working, is it really worth it? In the manufacturers’ defense it is almost impossible to include cutting edge technology in software products and keep up with the endless stream of Microsoft patches. Add to that the efforts by the manufacturers to satisfy your and my desires for new features and our requests for the manufacturers to add more and more features to their software offerings.

In the next few posts I will make some suggestions that will make it easier for you to deal with the issues of making all of your software work with whatever version of Windows you’re trying to use.

Windows 7, XP Mode, and all of the old systems

Rockwell Software launched a number of software package updates in the last few weeks that are compatible with Windows 7. Thank goodness. Right? Immediately following the launch and after I let people know the updates were available I got several emails asking, “So now that RSLogix 5000 version 19 and FactoryTalk View Studio version 6.0 work with Windows 7 will all of the older packages also run on Windows 7?”

The short answer is no.The older versions weren’t updated. They will still only work on the Windows operating systems they were tested on. Windows 7 includes a downloadable XP Virtual Machine that allows you to run in XP mode. But Rockwell has not tested the Windows 7 XP Mode component and while a number of my customers and I have made it work, it is sporadic. There are instances where I just could not make it work. So the pro is XP mode is free. The con is you may spend a considerable amount of  time attempting to get software to run with Windows 7 in XP mode and never get it to work.

So what to do? Here is my take.

First thing, check the Rockwell Automation Knowledgebase for the current Answer containing the operating system comaptability matrix. (Answer ID 42682) Then read the release notes of any version of the software package you are considering migrating to. The release notes will alert you to any operating system issues you might face and will give you a heads up on what type of hardware is required for the software to run acceptably.

And then consider the options:

  1. Keep an old computer with an older operating system on it. This may sound feasible but long-term it doesn’t work. How many of us still have a Windows 95 or NT box that we can keep running?
  2. Try and make it run with Windows 7 and XP Mode. It won’t cost you anything but time.
  3. Learn and use a virtualization package that allows you to use and maintain multiple operating system versions. The only realistic option in my opinion.
  4. Upgrade all of your software and hardware systems to the latest version offered by your preferred factory automation manufacturer. This is an unreasonably expensive option but if you are interested please let me know. My kids are pretty smart and might go to expensive schools down the road.

If you know of other options please leave a comment and let me know. In my next two posts I will discuss using the two major options for virtualization packages, VirtualBox and VMWare and what I feel are the up and down sides to each of them.

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iPad or iPhone Connection to Rockwell Software FactoryTalk Products

FactoryTalk View virtual client on iPadThe View booth at Automation Fair last year included a demo of an iPad with a connection to a FactoryTalk View system. I got quite a few questions as to how it was actually connected. Now the truth is revealed.

A company named Aurora Industrial Automation released an app for the iPhone and iPad that can make a connection through FactoryTalk ViewPoint or FactoryTalk VantagePoint software. The ViewPoint software provides web-based access to FactoryTalk View applications and the VantagePoint software is a reporting tool that makes it easy to develop dashboards and reports from different databases and data sources. The Aurora app is a pretty creative and leading edge way to display information from the factory floor.

More information on the new apps is available in this posting from The Journal from Rockwell Automation or on the Aurora Industrial Automation website.
(Be forewarned the Aurora site loads v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. They are probably slammed with traffic from this release.)

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Options for Tying Your Control Networks Together

The most common conversation I have with people is about how to make connections between different control networks. My customers have Modbus networks that they want to tie to Allen-Bradley PLCs or Logix controllers. Controls Engineers have to make all of this crazy stuff talk. Profinet to Ethernet/IP to serial to CANopen to DeviceNet to ASi. It just goes on and on and on. I know everyone of you reading this have pulled your graying hair out trying to make a connection between one brand of PLC and another brands favored network. (OK. Some of you aren’t graying yet but others are past graying because I’ve noticed there is little left. But I’m not judging.)

The most common follow-up question I get to “How do I connect the two networks?” is “Why are there so many choices?” My answer is that there are a bunch of different manufacturers and network interfaces in the market but some solutions are more appropriate for certain control applications than others. I’m glad there are a lot of choices. It helps me recommend the right product given the application. For instance, if you want to connect a bar code scanner or RFID reader to an Ethernet/IP network, I have yet to find an easier device to use than the ASCII to Ethernet/IP interface from RTA. There are ASCII to Ethernet/IP devices available from other manufacturers but RTA’s 435NBX is just my personal pick.

So what are some other important considerations when picking an interface?

If you are using a Rockwell Automation controller (MicroLogix, SLC, PLC, CompactLogix, or ControlLogix) and the application allows you to stick the interface in the chassis with the controller, you need to look at ProSoft’s InRax interfaces. ProSoft makes both chassis-based and non-chassis-based gateways for just about any imaginable network connection. If you are using any of the Rockwell Software FactoryTalk View products in the system where you need an interface it’s a no-brainer to take advantage of the faceplates ProSoft developed.

One of the newest devices is the HMS Anybus CANopen gateway. Typically CANopen devices come in to my customers on a machine and need to be integrated into a larger system with a PLC or PAC. The new CANopen gateways from Anybus provide a simple interface to tie a controller (anyone’s PLC) to the CANopen devices.

If you have an interesting application or story about how you were able to tie two or more different networks together I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Links to other posts covering interfaces for tying different control networks together:

Use SLC I/O (1746) on an Ethernet/IP Network

Interfaces for DH+ and DH-485

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Award Winning FactoryTalk View and PanelView Plus 6.0

The new 6.0 version of Rockwell Automation’s View Studio product and the 6.0 version of the Panelview Plus terminal have some major enhancements over the previous versions. Control Engineering magazine awarded the product the Engineer’s Choice Award. Watch the overview video from Automation Fair below and then look at the link roundup resources below it.

PanelView Plus 6.0 Engineering 2011 Engineers’ Choice Award winner

PanelView Plus 6.0 and FactoryTalk View 6.0 Feature Enhancements

PanelView Plus on the new Rockwell Automation website

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Is Buy American a Worthy Cause or Waste of Time?

How many of you remember Walmart’s “Buy American” campaign in the early ’90’s? It kind of fizzled or self-destructed depending on your point of view. Numerous investigative reports determined that a number of products labeled as Made in America weren’t. However, the concept is worth considering. With global companies, corporate headquarters may be located anywhere, and large manufacturers may source components from any of a long list of overseas suppliers. There really aren’t a lot of big consumer products that are made in the USA. But I came across a website this week that is trying to rate products based on how much of the prodct is made in the USA and provide a showplace for products that are made here and contribute the most to our local communities.


America’s Got Product!

Visit the site and register your company if you want the recognition. I know we have quite a few companies in the Chattanooga area that provide snacks, mouthwash, carpet, household products, road building equipment, and a number of parts used in other products that are all made here. Post what you think as a comment. I’d love to here how many of you make products that help build our local community!

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New Updated Allen-Bradley Website by Rockwell Automation

Rockwell Automation launched an updated Allen-Bradley website today and you will all be very pleased with the new site. In the past you probably struggled to first figure out which product category the product you were looking for is in, then you got frustrated trying to find all of the information you needed surrounding that product. Now the product directory is very logically organized with lots of photos and helpful labels. All the info for any given product is linked on the product page in three tabs under the photographs of the products.

What do you think? Is the new site an improvement?

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Add-On Instructions (AOI) in Logix – More Tips

A customer asked me a question this week about Add-On Instructions that I had not considered before. I’m still struggling to see how you might deploy it and would love your input.

Add-On Instructions can call other Add-On Instructions in their routines. In other words you can nest AOIs and you can nest them up to seven levels deep. For the official documentation on AOI usage look at Logix5000 Controllers Add-On Instructions (Publication 1756-PM010C-EN-P) in Rockwell Automation’s Literature Library and refer to page 22 for information on nesting. To quote the manual, “This provides the ability to design more modular code by creating simpler instructions that can be used to build more complex functionality by nesting instructions.”

If you are not familiar with AOIs you can find several examples in the Sample Code Library. There is also an Add_On_Instruction_Samples.acd program that gets installed with RSLogix 5000 that you can access from the start page under Controller Projects then Open Sample Project.

I just can’t really picture a situation where it would simplify code to use this nesting technique. If anyone wants to help educate me and the rest of the readers please comment below or shoot me an email with a RSLogix 5000 project using this technique if you like. I will append this post with the advice.

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Search and Replace in FactoryTalk View and Project Documenter

Based on a customer’s questions this week I found one new trick in FactoryTalk View ME/Se and realized that I did not get the word out to everyone about another tool.

The FactoryTalk View Project Documenter is a utility that works with either ME or SE and generates a report containing a full listing of project characteristics. It’s been around a while but I’m finding that we didn’t let everyone know about this tool. The report includes a listing of all the displays used including any VBA and includes a listing of the tags used in the project. The utility works with any 5.0 or newer project and can be downloaded from the Knowledgebase using Answer ID 46928.

The new trick that I learned allows you to do a global find and replace for a tag, a label, an expression, or just about anything else. The trick uses the export and import graphics to xml function in Studio and the FTView Graphics Strings Search and Replace program that’s available for download from the Knowledgebase using Answer ID 29942.

Two more handy tools that might make it easier for you to get your work done in FactoryTalk View Studio.

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Accepting a little magic won’t eliminate the value of your engineering degree

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke is famous for writing “2001: A Space Odyssey” which I have to admit I didn’t like much.

The book was written in collaboration with Stanley Kubrick who wrote the film script at the same time Clarke wrote the book. I prefer Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange myself., but you’re wondering where I’m going with this…A movie clip set me down this path and I discovered that Arthur Clarke was the author of Clarke’s Law in addition to “2001: A Space Odyssey”. I didn’t know.

Numerous other fundamental laws exist and I will cover them in the future, but Clarke’s Three Laws seem to appropriately close out my posts for this week:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

My personal experience is that sometimes accepting a little magic isn’t a bad thing. If you work on it long enough and aren’t sure why it started working, embrace the magic and move on to your next challenge.

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