Open Systems: The Vendors Perspective

Open Systems: The Vendor`s Perspective

By Allen R. Skopp, Bailey Network Management

Open system architecture has had a profound effect on all facets of utility automation. Now, for the first time a mechanism exists that provides for the orderly migration of existing systems rather than completely replacing them every 10 to 15 years as has historically been the case. For most users, especially those electric utilities with complex and expensive supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA)/emergency management system (EMS) installations, the cost of purchasing new equipment has been dwarfed by the inherent labor and system downtime cost associated with a large-scale system replacement taking years to complete. By contrast, open systems allow users to make their own choice of hardware and software in order to serve the real-time information needs of the company rather than being forced into ever larger and more costly replacement programs.

Benefits vs. Challenges

The benefits of open systems are well understood by most users. But, what about the many challenges that open systems present to the supplier community? The ability to operate on a variety of hardware platforms, interoperability, adherence to accepted standards, the ability to incorporate a wide range of third-party software, and upward performance mobility–though clearly advantageous to the user–present significant challenges to the system vendor.

What it Is(n`t)

So what is an open system? Some people think that a system is open if it is merely UNIX based. Although UNIX is certainly a software environment that is conducive to open system architecture, “openness” is not implicitly guaranteed. Likewise, a system can be POSIX compliant and/or offer open interoperability and still not be an open system. Therefore, let us begin with a working definition for what open really means from a functional standpoint.

Open architecture system–A system that can be migrated, offers open interoperability, adheres to applicable standards, consists of a configuration of hardware and software elements available from multiple sources and that can be integrated, upgraded or replaced without any undue legal or technical constraints.

Fortunately (for the industry) several of the key automation system suppliers now offer systems that generally meet this definition–at least to the extent that is important to the end users. But “open” is much more than just a definition. Indeed, it implies a comprehensive business philosophy that must permeate all levels of a company and dictates an entirely different way of doing business. Moreover, if management doesn`t understand this broader meaning–and support it wholeheartedly–a truly open solution will not likely be realized.

An “Open” Commitment

Both philosophically and practically, this is no small commitment. What it means is that suppliers must be willing to remove all of the traditional barriers to true openness. They must be willing to share application program interfaces (API) with other software suppliers, allow other suppliers to put not invented here applications on their platform, provide source code, eliminate proprietary protocols and avoid proprietary hardware, and perhaps use another suppliers–possibly a competitor`s–software package if it is truly a better fit for the intended application.

Obviously, a fully open posture puts the system supplier at some risk but, like any other business risk, the benefit to the customer must be a primary consideration. In fact, most suppliers don`t really have a choice. Companies will survive and grow only when their goods and services are provided in a way that directly benefits their intended customers. In order to maintain a viable operation, some suppliers will have to accept the fact that significant restructuring may be necessary in order to preserve that objective. Companies that insist on operating in today`s environment the same way they did 25 years ago will likely find themselves badly out of step with their customers` cost/benefits analysis.

In order to more fully appreciate the impact on suppliers it is helpful to revisit circumstances during the late 1960s when computer-based SCADA master stations (now we call them host computers) first began to appear. Remember, in those days most suppliers were “vertically integrated” with some companies even building their own computers. Programming was in assembly language and almost all vendors made their own remote terminal units (RTU). Consider the variety of expertise and labor intensity required to support all of those activities!

Now, jump ahead to the mid-1990s, to modern open systems with increased performance and greatly enhanced operator-tunable functionality utilizing standard operating systems, high-level programming languages, advanced software tools, standard hardware and RTUs available from multiple sources. Besides the fact that the need for personnel has been reduced, the average selling price of systems (i.gif>., with equivalent performance characteristics) is drastically lower now than it was then and delivery times are shorter. It is no wonder then that suppliers must restructure in order to remain competitive.

Open Support

To some, open also means that the system can operate on several computer platforms. Yet even when this portability dimension is not a major development task, the underlying challenge for the system supplier is one of support since the supplier will need specially trained people for each type of computer platform that is placed in service. There are also other considerations: proposal preparation, marketing, training, sales development, volume commitments and documentation. These are all issues that must be dealt with and that come with a price tag for the vendor–in some cases, a big one. And, although the vendor may still have favored computer platform, the ability to support other platforms must also be preserved.

Proprietary Hardware

Proprietary hardware is another taboo for open systems since only the vendor can provide spare parts and effective service. By contrast, open system guidelines dictate that any hardware used should be available from multiple vendors. Again, the benefits to the user are significant. Open system vendors must be willing to provide standard products that can easily be maintained by other organizations, not only by the system supplier`s own staff. Systems that offer a hardware configuration with all elements available from multiple sources offer a distinct advantage to the user. The user is not only free to choose the type of maintenance support activity that is most cost effective and compatible with specific needs (e.g.., the system vendor, third-party service provider or in-house staff), but it is also possible that the same equipment/components may be used in other parts of their facilities as well.

Open Solutions

Open systems also allow third-party solutions to be integrated into the system, not only as an application, but also as fundamental part of the supplier`s native system offering. This may be a quick way for vendors to acquire needed functionality with minimum risk. But, although there are some clear advantages to this approach–and it may in fact be the best solution–it also presents still more challenges to the vendor. A supplier`s decision about whether to make or buy the user interface provides an insightful example.

In the early 1980s when full graphics became a requirement for EMSs, most vendors chose to design and build their own graphical user interface (GUI) since there were few viable off-the-shelf alternatives. But, over the course of several years some commercially available GUIs were finally developed. The feature content of these standard offerings was very robust and allowed faster development time, albeit at a price. However, many companies found that the cost of the modifications necessary to meet the needs of SCADA/EMS systems was quite significant.

Substantial additional costs were also incurred when the GUI supplier introduced new releases or revisions of the product that contained new features that the system vendor wanted to include. Moreover, some GUI suppliers did not have adequate documentation to facilitate easily making modifications. This meant that every release required a major software effort by the system supplier. And finally, GUI suppliers usually develop products on some native platform and then “port” the product to the other platforms, thus preventing the system supplier from offering consistent features until such time as all platforms offered are supported by the enhanced GUI product.

Third-party Software

Virtually all open systems contain several purchased software packages. The benefit to the user (and to the vendor) gained by using third-party software is one of the important strengths of an open system. But here to, there are underlying challenges for the system supplier.

The first of these deals is the software configuration control. This problem–i.gif>., keeping track of the latest software revision–applies to both internal and third-party software, the level of difficulty of incorporating these revision, and the number of systems deployed. Then, at some point, the third-party software supplier will invariably discontinue support for older revisions, necessitating that the software be brought to a currently supported release.

Software license management can also present problems for the open system supplier. The various third-party software licenses that exist in an open system are customarily passed on to the user. It is, however, the implicit obligation of the system supplier to provide some type of license tracking system to the user. A properly designed tracking system can prevent operational interruptions due to possible license expirations or even litigation stemming from inappropriate use of licensed software.

Another fundamental benefit of an open system is the ability to easily add third-party application programs. The user should have the freedom to integrate these applications using the third-party supplier, an independent contractor, the system vendor or internal staff as needs and preferences dictate. In order to do this, the system vendor must provide suitable APIs and make them available for unrestricted use on the system. This can–and often does–mean sharing information with current or potential competitors, and again, this is a risk that the system vendor must be prepared to take along with supporting the add-on application software in a way that allows the customer to realize the full potential of the system.

Standards

Standards are rudimentary to open systems, but strict adherence to standards inherently limits system performance and flexibility in practically all cases. Open system vendors are routinely faced with the challenge of designing and providing a system that not only meets the necessary performance criteria but that does so while adhering to a constantly changing set of hardware, software, communications and other relevant standards. “Where do these standards come from?” you might wonder. They are a result of people working on a multitude of technical society committees, councils and working groups. The challenge to the vendor is to commit the time, money and resources needed to support these standardization efforts.

Buyer-Seller Partnerships

In order for a partnership between a buyer and a seller to be a real value, the seller must provide a system that is truly open. This means that the system must be designed in such a way that anyone–whether the seller, another vendor or the user–can do the necessary system support/migration. This type of partnership continues because the vendor provides exemplary goods and/or services, not because the vendor has a technical (or legal) “lock” on the user. If the latter is true, it probably means that the vendor didn`t have an open system in the first place. A partnership must be based mutual trust, and the vendor must always have customer benefit as the foremost objective.

Use of PCs

The proliferation of personal computers (PCs) has put a great deal of pressure on system suppliers in several ways. The widespread use of PCs has generally heightened performance expectations, especially by the operating staff, for improved user interface methods, data access, data presentation and so forth. The PC-literate user rightfully believes that a system that costs several million dollars should at least be able to do what a few thousand dollar PC can do. Although this is not as much an open system issue as it is a 90`s issue, it presents yet another challenge that system suppliers must face.

A more directly related PC challenge is brought about by the proliferation of data interfaces to the real-time data in the system. The system must be able to serve hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of users without reduced performance. Despite the ease with which a PC can be connected to almost any open system, the overhead burden must still be taken into account and properly serviced. Many users fail to appreciate the rising burden that such additions place on their system until a crisis results from the aggregated drain on system resources.

Open Access

Open systems usually allow corporate access to the real-time data collected by the system. While this greatly enhances the value of the system for its users, it creates situations that were not typically encountered in older systems. For example, as the number of users on the system increases, system problems become general knowledge very quickly, sometimes causing a potential panic or crisis reaction when even minor problems occur. Widespread access to the system may also present a security problem. Again, responsibility for providing a design that protects the integrity of the system often falls on the shoulders of the system supplier.

System Migration

When making changes to a system, the most expedient way (at least from the vendor`s perspective) would be to ignore the past and just design a new system. However, this obviously would be detrimental to existing customers and would certainly violate the spirit of open concepts. Today`s utilities cannot afford, nor will they tolerate, so-called “fork lift” replacements of their now considerable investments in automation equipment. Instead, systems must have the capability to be upgraded gradually so that the additional investment is incremental and the system is essentially “always new.”

This capability to migrate the system presents a challenge to the system vendor in that the user must be free to choose which portion(s) of the system to upgrade and when. But, since it is inevitable that each user will pick and choose differently, it is quite likely that each system in the field will eventually, if not initially, become unique. Yet despite the differences, each individual system element, irrespective of vintage, must be capable of being upgraded.

Conclusion

System vendors must recognize that their primary challenge is to understand how open systems have changed the way business is being done. System suppliers must adopt an open attitude if they are going to provide truly open system`s solutions that allow multi-vendor support, easy integration of third-party hardware and software and upward mobility.

Author Bio

Allen Skopp is vice president of sales and marketing for Bailey Network Management, Sugar Land, Texas.

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