The Emergence of the Personal Data Wall

By Liv Stewart, Matrox Graphics

Recent technological advances in graphics hardware and software have introduced a number of possibilities for professionals working in areas such as grid operations centers where large amounts of data are employed. With the use of multiple monitors from a single computer, it is possible to view and work with great amounts of information at once, and for onscreen information to be moved smoothly from one display to another as if all the displays were one.

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Various studies report productivity gains between 10 percent and 50 percent from using multiple displays. Many who use a multi-display system for the first time are reluctant to go back to a single-display system. “For someone close to the technology the question is: Why not more?” said a multi-display report by Jon Peddie Research. “The reasons for, and benefits from, multiple displays seem so abundant and obvious; it is almost confusing as to why every system in the world doesn’t have multiple displays.”

Desktop Real Estate Boom

In some industries, the desktop real estate made available through the use of even two displays is not sufficient. In high-reliability environments, such as energy management facilities, the use of multiple monitors is highly prevalent. It is essential for operators to have constant, simultaneous access to a significant amount of critical information, and it is not uncommon for each operator console to be equipped with at least four monitors. Providing grid operators the ability to access as much critical information as possible about a given power grid is of paramount importance. In such environments, the productivity gains associated with working on more than one monitor are unquestionable. Being able to see more information at any given time decreases the chances of an operator missing essential details.

Multi-monitor management software is able to further enhance the experience of working with multiple monitors connected to a single system. This includes the ability to control where display dialog boxes and message boxes related to the operating system and applications being used appear, and how various windows are maximized across-or over a portion of-the expanded desktop area.

Most graphics hardware manufacturers provide desktop management software within the driver packages for their graphics hardware. Such software tools can provide superior ways for one to benefit from the use of multiple displays than what is offered through the computer’s operating system. For example, some software offers the ability to zoom into a specific region of a power grid, and have that portion of the grid maximized to one of the other displays. It also provides the user the ability to copy information from one display to another full screen-or even stretched across many screens. This “cloning” feature is useful when an alarm is triggered at some point on an electrical grid, and the operator wants to share the details of the incident on a larger display wall at the front of the control room for others to see, as well.

Optimizing Operator Productivity

The scalability and interconnectivity of graphics hardware provides IT managers a high degree of flexibility in supporting advanced multi-monitor configurations. In order to power eight, 12 or even 16 monitors, for example, it is possible to insert multiple quad- or octal-output graphics cards into a computer system.

Desktop management software that can enable advanced monitor configurations is also available. Certain graphics solutions are equipped with software that supports “stretched” and/or “independent” multi-monitor display modes. When in “stretched” mode, the computer’s operating system recognizes only one large display that spans all the monitors that are physically attached to the system. The desktop management software then assumes the responsibility of distributing the information evenly across all the monitors. Some software applications, particularly those that employ alarm notification windows, which appear in front of an operator in the event that they were triggered, benefit from using this mode. The reason: If the computer graphics hardware is configured to work in “stretched” mode, an alarm activated from any given point on a grid spanning six displays, for example, would appear over a portion of that entire grid in order to effectively notify the operator.

In “independent” mode, on the other hand, the computer’s operating system recognizes each display individually. It is possible to support different resolutions on each monitor and to maximize diverse applications on individual displays. In this mode, an alarm activated from within an application would cause a notification window to appear over a portion of the application on the display in which the application is running.

No More Wall Displays

More and more utilities are looking toward alternatives to using large, costly collaborative display walls in their control rooms. To trim down the expenditure associated with creating large walls of rear-projection cubes, many utilities are capitalizing on the flexibility, high availability, and lower costs associated with commercial-of-the-shelf (COTS) products to create larger individual operator configurations-sometimes referred to as “personal data walls.” The availability of robust, customizable, ergonomic console furniture that comes fully equipped with multiple monitor arms; standard computer workstations; ordinary LCD panels; and COTS multi-display graphics cards that can be combined to build a personal data wall makes this an attractive option. All this state-of-the-art technology can provide the same, or at times even more, total desktop resolution as the traditional control room display wall-and at a fraction of the cost.

The employment of a personal data wall allows an operator to manage and monitor a large amount of information coming from a distribution management, outage management or other vital system on as many as six, nine, 12, or even 16 displays. A personal data wall offers the operator a vast amount of screen resolution at the console, providing the ability to monitor details of a data set and swiftly respond to incidents more easily, without any possible constraints that can be associated with sharing one display wall among many users. Depending on the size and type of operations center, the use of personal data walls can add to the value of a large collaborative display wall or eliminate the need for one altogether.

Thoroughly Evaluate Options

The selection of appropriate graphics hardware is vital to the smooth operation of mission-critical systems. When assessing the benefits of multi-display graphics hardware, some key factors to consider include: The multi-display capabilities of the hardware (i.e. does it support the number of displays that need to be run at the appropriate resolution(s) and configuration?); whether or not it has certified drivers for the application(s) that will be run on the target system(s); the scalability of the solution for possible future upgrades (i.e. do the system bus form factors of the boards, such as PCI, PCI-X or PCI Express, allow for several to be run alongside each other so that the desired number of displays can be powered?); the life cycle of the manufacturer’s product line (i.e. do their products typically have life cycles long enough to meet your organization’s refresh cycles so that minimal re-validation of graphics hardware is required); and the accessibility and responsiveness of the manufacturer’s representatives and technical support team.

Liv Stewart has worked at Matrox Graphics Inc., in Dorval, Quebec, Canada for seven years. She is a representative of Matrox graphics hardware for use in energy management, distributed management, outage management and other mission-critical systems and can be reached at: lstewart@matrox.com or 514-822-6336.

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