How Virtualization Rocks Your World

June 27, 2012
Operating systems can’t tell the difference between a virtual machine and a physical machine, but manufacturers are seeing – and celebrating – the notable difference virtualization is having on their bottom line

With aging plant infrastructures, tighter regulations, data security issues and numerous other challenges to address, process engineers want to get the most from their IT-based plant assets. To do this, many have included virtualization in their automation migration plans. Virtualization is rapidly transforming the IT landscape, and fundamentally changing the way you use hardware resources.

And the return on investment (ROI) is nearly immediate because virtualization helps you build an infrastructure that better leverages manufacturing resources and delivers high availability.What is Virtualization?Virtualization is a software technology that decouples the physical hardware of a computer from its operating system (OS) and software applications, creating a pure software instance of the former physical computer — commonly referred to as a Virtual Machine (VM). A VM behaves exactly like a physical computer, contains it own “virtual” CPU, RAM hard disk and network interface card, and runs as an isolated guest OS installation within your host OS. The terms “host” and “guest” are used to help distinguish the software that runs on the actual machine (host) from the software that runs on the virtual machine (guest).Virtualization works by inserting a layer of software called a “hypervisor” directly on the computer hardware or on a host OS. A hypervisor allows multiple OSs, “guests,” to run concurrently on a host computer (the actual machine on which the virtualization takes place). Conceptually, a hypervisor is one level higher than a supervisory program. It presents to the guest OS a virtual operating platform and manages the execution of the guest OSs.Virtualization software allows virtual machines to access the physical hardware resources of the computer on which they reside. Having the ability to run multiple VMs on one physical computer allows for the optimization of server and workstation physical assets as most server-based computers are significantly underutilized. Organizations typically run one application per server to avoid the risk of vulnerabilities in one application affecting the availability of another application on the same server. As a result, typical x86 server deployments achieve an average utilization of only 10-15 percent of total capacity. Virtualization allows applications to share computers, allowing manufacturers to re-adjust how many computers are needed.
Figure 1. Virtual machines can be run on any virtualization-enabled physical server, creating a pool of computer resources that helps ensure your highest-priority applications will always have the resources you need without wasting money on excess hardware only needed for peak times.

Virtualization in Action
But the benefits of virtualization go far beyond the consolidation of computers. Many manufacturers use virtualization to extend their software’s longevity. Consider the case of Genentech, a biotech company based in South San Francisco, California. Genentech specializes in using human genetic information to develop and manufacture medicines to treat patients with serious or life-threatening medical conditions.

The company estimated that the costs to upgrade one of its Windows 95 PC-based HMIs to a Windows Server 2003-based system would be approximately $40,000. Final figures topped $100,000 because of costs associated with validating the system for use in a regulated industry. Assuming that OSs are updated about every five years, costs quickly become a limiting factor in keeping an installed base of manufacturing computers up-to-date.

Additional factors also contribute to the cost of upgrades. “Computer hardware changes even more frequently than operating systems,” says Anthony Baker, system engineer at Rockwell Automation. “Each change incurs engineering expenses and possibly production downtime.”

So instead of investing in the upgrades, Genentech implemented virtualization.

According to Dallas West, Automation Group Leader at Genentech,  one of the most lasting effects of virtualization is that it allows legacy operating systems, such as Windows 95, Windows NT, etc., to be run successfully on computers manufactured today. This extends HMI product lifecycles from 5-7 years to 10-15 years and possibly longer.

“Having the ability to extend the useful life of a computer system allows a manufacturer to create a planned, predictable upgrade cycle commensurate with its business objectives,” West says.

“No longer is a business forced to upgrade its systems because a software vendor has come out with a new version. Upgrading systems can once again be driven by adding top-line business value by choosing to upgrade when new features become available that will provide an acceptable return on investment,” he explains.

Why Virtualization is a Big Deal
Virtualized assets also help increase productivity. By not having to maintain physical hardware, administrators are able to carry a heavier workload. A recent study by analyst IDC found that administrators manage an average of about 30 servers. After virtualization, they can manage 60-90 servers — a significant increase in capacity. They’re also able to spend more time architecting their infrastructure for higher levels of productivity.

“Gone are the days of “server sprawl,” where a new server is needed for each new application or tool and each ends up running at only 8-10% utilization,” Baker says.

Virtualization allows companies to create a scalable infrastructure, where new VMs can be added without the need to continuously buy new hardware and other physical devices. When manufacturers start to consolidate, they find they can buy and allocate the appropriate amount of resources for each VM, which reduces system maintenance and energy consumption costs.

Another feature of virtualization is that the system doesn’t know it’s “virtualized.” This allows administrators to take hardware offline while the system is up and running.

“Since the VMs are not attached to a physical computer, the VMs can be migrated between servers while the system is still running,” notes Baker.

During a planned outage, administrators can shift their workloads so the server can be taken down with no impact to the system. When the planned outage is complete, the server can be placed back into service.

Advantages of a Virtual Machine:
•    Hardware independence
•    Fault tolerance
•    Application-load balancing
•    Rapid disaster recovery
•    Recovery to non-identical hardware
•    Ability to pre-test OS patches or vendor updates
•    Ability to roll-back incompatible OS patches or vendor updates
•    Reduced TCO resulting from consistent datacenter environment
•    Reduced power usage

Baker adds, “Rockwell Automation recognizes our customers’ desire to make use of the opportunities that virtualization brings to mission critical applications. That’s why we’ve worked closely with VMware, the leader in virtualization technologies, to establish a technical partnership.” Rockwell Automation supports its software suite in virtualized environments, and has developed a list of software products that are recognized by VMware as “VMware Ready.”

Today, most Rockwell Automation configuration, human interface and information products are certified as VMware ready, and Rockwell Automation is committed to testing all new software products in a virtual environment.

Applying Virtual Assets
Using specially designed host hardware available on the market today, a virtual server can be sized with extensive memory and CPU resources. This allows a large number of VMs to be consolidated onto a single machine without impacting performance.

You can create a data center by running a group of servers with hypervisors managed via a virtualization infrastructure management interface. The bare-metal environment frees up a large portion of resources, which can then be dedicated to running the VMs.

Tips for Getting Started
If you’re thinking about virtualization for your manufacturing facility, consider the following advice:

  1. Being able to run legacy software indefinitely doesn’t mean you should. If you find a software bug in an old system, don’t count on it being fixed. You’ll also want to consider the security implications of running legacy software. Virtualization should be used as a tool to moderately extend the life cycle of a computer system to allow an upgrade to take place in a planned and predictable manner when a suitable business driver emerges.
  2. Not all network protocols are easily virtualized. The use of standard Ethernet is most widely supported by the various virtualization vendors.
  3. Non x86-based systems (ie. SPARC, DEC-Alpha, etc.) cannot be virtualized to run on a x86-based machine, such as Intel, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), etc.
  4. Third-party vendor support for virtualized systems has been limited. There is an added risk of running virtualized software in a production environment that has not been thoroughly tested and endorsed by a respective third-party vendor.

Rockwell Automation Process Solutions

About the Author

Dallas West | Genentech and Anthony Baker