Unsuspecting Benefit of Virtualization

By Chris Ault

Ault_lg I came across an article the other day that was discussing forthcoming innovations in the automation industry. The article discusses how Ethernet is becoming ubiquitous for manufacturing, closing the numerous and incompatible communications protocols and media enabling communication among the various control and controlled systems. The article then goes on to draw industrial automation into the cloud for things such as inventory control and tighter relations between producers and consumers.

One aspect of embedded virtualization that we are focusing on is providing the ability to host general purpose operating systems, such as Linux or Windows, alongside real-time operating systems such as VxWorks on the same embedded device or equipment. In the manufacturing industry, using a hypervisor to run both VxWorks and Windows on the same robotic device allows the device to retain the real-time control while also interacting with standards-based management protocols such as SNMP, CIM or WBEM over Ethernet.

A device like an automotive robot or printing press can keep its real-time OS and application intact while using a general-purpose OS for interacting with other management and control systems via Ethernet. Rather than modify the real-time control application to extend management functions, equipment manufacturers can extend the functionality of these devices by adding general purposes OSes that interact with non-real-time systems. The non-real-time components of the devices can interact with the corporate IT systems to report on health, status, progress, and inventory issues while also communicating with the real-time component of the devices via Ethernet.

Now, there are many business drivers and benefits of embedded virtualization, such as consolidation, space and power savings, migration, etc. But after reading this article I envisioned the manufacturing floor, with its many robots controlled by real-time OSes, with each OS hosted on an embedded hypervisor which was also hosting a general purpose OS terminating the Ethernet connections and supporting the management protocols. The hypervisor is hosting both operating systems thus bridging both real-time automation and IT enterprise “worlds.”  

In this mental image I saw the manufacturing robots or printing presses integrated with the enterprise back-office control systems that host the business functions. Functions that are typically hosted by large process systems such as SAP or Oracle, along with the enterprise storage systems and variety of servers hosting the functions for order management, procurement, inventory control, and so on. Whether these business functions for order management and inventory control are hosted locally at the enterprise or have migrated to the cloud, there can be much tighter control and integration between the consumers of manufactured goods, and the processes and machines that produce the goods.

Embedded virtualization now has an unsuspected benefit beyond consolidation, migration, and performance improvement: embedded virtualization just integrated the physical manufacturing process – the equipment printing the paper or doing the spot welding – with the business systems of the enterprise and the end consumers.

I’m not saying that achieving such integration is an easy feat, but, in my mental image, I see this integration as a very important benefit for manufacturing, the benefit being far more important than reducing equipment component costs or migrating to new hardware. By integrating manufacturing and production systems with the business systems and consumer processes, manufacturing can operate in much tighter synchronization, and with even fewer idle supplies in inventory.

Most people would not automatically think of this type of benefit, but yes – embedded virtualization can be used to bring business and manufacturing processes closer together.

Chris is a Senior Product Manager for Wind River focusing on virtualization solutions. Prior to joining Wind River, Chris has worked in various roles from software engineering to product management at Mitel, Nortel, Ciena, AppZero and Liquid Computing, with a focus on application and server virtualization products, technologies, and sales.