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Archive for October, 2006

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

A Happy All Hallows Eve to all the goblins, ghouls and ghosts out there.  Halloween has it roots in a pagan festival celebrated by the Irish Celts in 5th century BC.  Again this post has nothing to do with OPC, it’s just another holiday I really like.  Must be the Murphy in me.

One folklore story say that on October 31st, the disembodied spirits of the dead from the preceding year would return in search of bodies to possess. It was believed to be their only hope for the afterlife. The ancient Celts believed all laws of space and time were suspended during this night, allowing the spirit world to intermingle with the living.

I’ve been on a few projects where I swear all laws of space and time were suspended.  It’s the only possible explanation as to how that many problems could come up, simultaneously, at the worst possible moment.  (of course that might also just be the Murphy in me).

And dealing with ever changing Windows platforms and DCOM configuration settings would seem to me much like battling hordes of the undead or exorcising demons from the third circle of Hades.  On the other had successfully implementing a well designed OPC architecture gives me the same pleasure as sitting down to a pillow case full of potato chips, candy bars, and enough sugar treats to put a horse into a coma.  

Maybe Halloween and OPC do have something in common after all.

Stay safe out there tonight.

OPC Board of Directors Election: Amin Rawji in the Running

Monday, October 30th, 2006

The OPC Board of Directors elections is running from October 31, 2006 to December 1, 2006. Those of you who are Designated Representatives will be receiving your Ballots by e-mail October 30th.  (If you want the exciting details you can read the bylaws.  Riveting stuff. Really).   The bios and details of those running can be found on the OPC Foundation site.   

One name I got to get up on my soapbox about.   I’m happy to say the Amin Rawji, President and CEO of Matrikon has thrown his hat into the ring.  Amin has been my friend and mentor for all my years the company, and I can honestly say, his direction and vision has made MatrikonOPC the world OPC leader that it is today.   I’m going to try not to wax poetic here, but credit where credit is due.   Amin’s been a key factor in turning a 20 person, local systems integrator into a world class global solutions provider over the last 10 years.  His commitment and support of OPC has always been an integral part of that success.

When I left Honeywell to join Matrikon which had about 50+ employees at the time, Amin was managing the Custom Interfaces Division.   My interview was conducted on a Saturday afternoon in December, and Amin (and about half the office) were there like it was any other day.   What struck me most about Amin was his passion and excitement, and how they affected those around him.   I was about to walk away from a 100,000+ company like Honeywell, in Toronto (it’s the Center of the Universe don’t you know) to join a little company with folding card tables for desks, in Edmonton… in the winter.  Yet after meeting Amin, I was comfortable taking that leap, because I could feel the excitement and potential.   OPC was just starting when Amin took over the Interface department, and he quickly saw the future of what OPC could become, and drove the business in that direction.   The rest as they say is history.  OPC UA is the future, and the potential for the next steps of growth is looming again.

Amin has always believed in giving his personal attention to the areas of business that need guidance.   Today the industrial automation world is on the brink of an exciting new era of globalization, enterprise integration, service based architectures and wireless connectivity technology.   OPC UA is a key component in leveraging and growing these opportunities.   The success of any OPC company, like Matrikon, is irrevocably tied to the success and direction of OPC UA and the OPC Foundation.  Amin believes now is the time to offer his keen business sense, strategic planning abilities, and software technology experience to aid in the direction and grow of the OPC Foundation.   So I recommend you cast your vote for Amin and the success of the OPC Foundation in it’s exiting new challenges.

I’ll get off the soapbox now cuz’ I’m all verklempt.  Talk amongst yourselves.   I’ll give you a topic.  OPC is no longer just OLE nor Process Control.  Discuss.

OPC HDA: Simplifying Data Management

Friday, October 27th, 2006

Jim Cahill recently had a post about migrating 10 years of historical process data from one historian to another.   Yet another application that can make use of OPC HDA.  OPC Historical Data Access – migrating historical data… who’da thunk it?

I’ve done a lot of database migrations, and having the right tools to get the data out of one proprietary format into another was always a challenge.  Developing a custom tool always had risks and even using flat files had it’s pitfalls  (text wrapping, file size limitations, speed of transfer… the fun never ended).  A well built OPC HDA server cures a lot of ills, and you can get them for pretty much any major historian on the market.

The basics of migrating data between historians boils down to reading blocks of history from one and writing blocks of history into the other.  OPC HDA is used to move history in many architectures, such as hub and spoke, guaranteed data delivery and event capture.  Historical process data migration is a natural fit.  Features of OPC HDA such as ReadRaw with bounding values ensure you don’t miss data, and the Insert, Replace and InsertReplace functionality gives the tools control over updating the data in the target historian.

Moving 10 years of data is not a trivial task, regardless of what tools you’re using.  Jim outlined a lot of the key project steps;  design, configuration, data migration, testing, training etc.   An important step he didn’t highlight was data quality auditing.  Identifying things such as accuracy, integrity, consistency, completeness, and validity.  In other words  Did you get everything that was in Historian A into Historian B, and is it EXACTLY the same?    OPC HDA helps out here too with the standard aggregate functions.  You can quickly check data integrity by running the same standard aggregates like TimeAverage, Minimum, Maximum, etc on both data sets.

Migrating historian databases is not just the result of upgrading legacy equipment.   Changing or standardizing on a vendor due to company mergers often results in historian changes.   Of course if your data visualization and reporting tools had been OPC based in the first place, having multiple historians is less of an issue.

OPC In the News and DevCon recap

Tuesday, October 24th, 2006

There are a lot of people talking about OPC these days.  There’s a good article in this weeks Automation.com newsletter from Jim Pinto on OPC and end user involvement.  He refers to an article on standards he wrote a while ago, and how it relates to OPC.  I’ve posted on that in the past, but Jim has a different take on things.  Jim’s not the only one talking.  OPC been the topic of conversation elsewhere like the ProSoft blog, and Control Global magazine.  Must be all the buzz the OPC User Groups and OPC UA DevCon generated. 

Sounds like the DevCon went over well (I know the User Groups did, my travel woes aside).  Now that the OPC UA specification Parts are being released, this year’s DevCon had more concrete presentations.

Day One focused on the high level introduction and vision of UA.  Tom’s presentation reinforced the OPC UA vision of being the next generation in system interoperability.  The How for Moving the What.  He also talked about the different collaboration efforts that are underway, such as those with EDDL and the FDT groups.  Jim wrapped up the day with some real world problems that OPC UA is targeting to solve.  Speaking of real world views, there was also an end user presentation from EDF Group, the French power company.  They talked about their requirements, challenges and experiences with OPC.  MatrikonOPC has done a lot of work with EDF, including projects that make use of OPC Tunneller and Hub and Spoke type architectures.

Day Two got into more technical aspects of OPC UA.  Again these presentations were more detailed from last year, including a great overview on the powerful information model that OPC UA exposes.  This, along with the Security and reliability aspects of OPC UA open the door for some powerful applications in the near future.   The highlight of the conference would have to be the demonstration.   This year they chose to show some of the lower end flexibility of OPC UA, by demonstrating OPC UA connectivity on embedded and Linux platforms.

Day Three dove deep into the gory details of Implementation.  This was for the Devs, of the DevCon.  There was a presentation on some of the Microsoft development offerings, and a good outline of the various OPC UA SDKs that will be available  (ANSI C, .NET and Java).

All the feedback I’ve gotten in my conversations on the DevCon have been positive.   Anyone out there have any other comments to add, Good, Bad or Ugly?   For me, the big thing I keep seeing is the importance of end user involvement in the process.  At the OPC UG in Houston, Jim Pinto issued a challenge to the OPC Foundation of 75% end user enrollment in the OPC Foundation.   Personally I agree with Jim.  Those that face the pain are in the best position to drive the solution.  Looks like Tom is taking the challenge to heart with a renewed focus on membership.  The more the merrier!

Cologne User Group Wraps Up

Monday, October 16th, 2006

Day 2 offered more informative OPC presentations.  Timo Klingenmeier, the Director of the Matrikon Deutschland office presented a client case study.  The client was MiRO (Mineral Oil Refinery Oberrhein) Germany’s largest oil refinery.  The presentation detailed how they incorporated OPC DA into their state of the art Alarm Management Solution.

Among the end user presentations was the talk on using OPC to integrate data into SAP, given by Dr Arne Manthey, SAP Deutschland.  The application dealt accessing accurate weigh scale information in the pharmaceutical industry.

Other topics presented included Cyber Security and OPC, Redundancy solutions and more.  The conference wrapped up with a open panel discussion.  There topics and discussions ranged widely as different questions where posed, and people talked about their particular OPC implementations or challenges they were trying to solve.  Having everyone connecting and communicating was fitting way to close out the conference.

Speaking of connecting, I had some good conversations with the Matrikon folk who attended the OPC UA DevCon, and also ran into my good friend, Randy Armstrong from the OPC Foundation at Heathrow.  Turns out we where catching the same flight back to Canada.  I’ll see if I can get a posting up recapping the OPC UA event.

Driving Connectivity and More

Monday, October 16th, 2006

Everyone had a fantastic time at the Michael Schumacher Kart Track.  The track was large, with good straight-aways and lots of challenging curves.  Here’s a shot of the huge helmet in the middle. (I’m sure this is not insinuating in any way that Shumi has a big head, even if he is the most successful driver in the history of Formula One.)

OPCUG Kolon

The racing was fast and furious, as once again the competitive spirit came out in everyone.  Talking about OPC, and how it’s used in industry must have got everyone really revved up, because there was a lot of energy being burned off on the track.  Bumping, jockeying for position, and occasional pile up in the corner.  I think someone even got T-boned at one point.

Racing at the MatrikonOPCUG

The final race was a 60 lap tag team event with 12 teams of 3 players.  The drivers would do a quick switch off in the pit lane every 10 laps or so.  Quite an exciting time.  Here’s a shot of the victors.  Congratulations to all!

MatrikonOPC User Group Race Winners

Cologne OPC User Group – Day 1

Monday, October 16th, 2006

Gutentag!  When I finally got to the OPC User Group, I found it in full swing.  Again lots of interesting presentations, including one from ENCO about using OPC in a wind turbine project in Spain.  The project involved collecting process data from 100 Vestas turbines.   It was implemented using a Hub and Spoke architecture with OPC Desktop Historian and OPC Transporter, an OPC HDA client.  This architecture allows then to have at the source OPC data buffering, and guaranteed data delivery to the long term historian.

Seems wind power is a popular topic these days.  There was an posting on the InTech blog not long ago discussing the potential of using large off shore turbines.  Turbines are even popping up on eastern Prince Edward Island, just a couple of miles from where I grew up.  There’s never a lack wind on PEI, and anyone who has ever stood on the Point when there’s a good Nor’Easter on the blow can attest to the strength.  Speaking of windy islands, OPC was also used in wind power project on King Island, off the coast of Tasmania.  Looks like I’ve got blown a wee bit off course following the whole OPC and wind power thing.  Back to the User Group….

There where other presentations on OPC being used the power industry, such as the one from Mariusz Postol of CAS, discussing a redundant OPC architecture at three large power generation plants in Lodz,Poland.  We rounded the day out with several more end user presentations, and I eventually got do give my talk on OPC and Mission Critical architectures.

Then it was off to the Michael Schumacher Kart Track for some more fun.  Listing to riveting tales of OPC or screaming around a track in a tiny car; which is more fun?  To each his own, but personally I’m leaning more towards OPC…

Lessons on Terminal 2 and Communication

Wednesday, October 11th, 2006

Well I finally made it to the OPC UG here in Koln.  Some of you may have happened to catch the news blurb on the evacuation of London-Heathrow’s Terminal 2.  Unfortunately I had a front row seat to the whole affair.  I won’t go off on a tirade of how poorly the airport and airlines handled the mess from a customer relations point of view. The extent of their communication was ‘wait for an announcement’.There was one announcement given a half an hour after all flights on the board went to Delayed/Cancelled.  “Due to security reasons beyond our control all flights from Terminal 2 are delayed.  Thank you” (Actually there were another dozen or so announcements but they were just to keep everyone informed about the airport no smoking policy.F  or some reason these seemed to enrage people to the point of speechlessness.  Not sure why.)

If it wasn’t for wireless Internet access and Google News,  no one in Terminal 2 would have any idea what happened.

One thing I took away from this slightly surreal side trip from the ordinary, was the affect communication, or the lack there of, has on people.  The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Unfortunately it’s easy to guess the Bad, as mild mannered businessmen became frustrated and resorted to language that would make a pirate blush.  The Ugly was the mob mentality of yelling and violent gesturing from a group of people who realized they could not leave the terminal and no one could give the simplest explanation as to what was happening.  Without information or communication there are those that quickly assume the worst.

Connecting to people and communicating also brings out the Good.  I was lucky to be part of a small group of fellow stranded travelers that formed to help each other out and share information.  A Hamburg bound passenger from San Francisco bought water for everyone.  My laptop became a source of information, and allowed some people to get e-mails to anxious friends and family.  Those with cell phones relayed what information they could obtain.  Everyone took turns calling the airline desks, and shared their news.  It was interesting to see a group of strangers, from varying backgrounds, ages and countries quickly connect and begin communicating information.  Kind of like OPC.  Spooky how everything relates back to OPC.

Now if I could come up with an OPC Server for getting information out of airline officials, I’d be a very rich man.

I will be posting about the OPC UG here in Koln, so stay posted.

OPC Related Briefings at ISA Expo 2006

Monday, October 9th, 2006

There are many standards and other leading industry-wide initiatives in the world of automation.  Industrial leaders will be sharing the latest standards updates with ISA EXPO attendees on 17-19 October at Reliant Center in Houston, Texas.   More details here.

Here’s the short list of those that directly deal with OPC, or have some collaboration with OPC UA.

Tuesday, 17 October, 2006
11:00 a.m. Dick Oyen Security Considerations of the New OPC Unified
1:30 p.m. Bryan Singer ISA-SP99: Security Standards for Industrial Automation
2:00 p.m. Tom Burke Future of Real-time Architecture
3:30 p.m.  Alan Johnston MIMOSA’s OSA-CBM (Open Systems Architecture for Condition Based Maintenance) Version 3.1 Specifications

Wednesday, 18 October, 2006
10:30 a.m. Bill Cotter and OMAC MSMUG: Working Together for a Better Future Jim Bauhs
11:00 a.m. Keith Unger Manufacturing Interoperability Guideline Working Group: A Collaborative   Venture of OAGI, WBF, ISA, MIMOSA, and OPC
2:00 p.m. Dennis Brandl ISA-SP88: Batch Control and Beyond
2:30 p.m. Keith Unger ISA-SP95: Enterprise-Control System Integration Standards

Should be interesting.

Understanding OPC (Some Assembly Required)

Friday, October 6th, 2006

It seems my goal to get everyone talking about OPC is having an effect.   It’s got Nick over at ProSoft blogging about OPC and how fits into their products.   What’s even better are the comments that it inspired.   OPC and blogging.  Truly Making Connections.

We’ll leave aside his comments on my penchant for Star Wars (the fact that I have a Darth Vadar head and a LEGO Slave I (complete with Han Solo in carbonite) on my desk is just a strange coincidence).  What really got my attention are some of the OPC conversations it sparked.  It has reaffirmed for me that blogs do reach people, and has shed a new light on how some folks out there perceive OPC.

I’ll forgive Nick for using the definition of OPC as OLE for Process Control.  The OPC Foundation has officially stopped using that acronym as the specifications have grown beyond the COM based implementations (OLE) and are used in many places outside of Process Control (it’s used in HVAC, ODBC, RFID and anything else you can think up an acronym for).  The term OPC is no longer an acronym for anything.  At one meeting we bandied around a few suggestions;  Openness – Productivity – Connectivity, Open Performance Connections, Old Programmers Club.  Nothing really sounded right.   So OPC is just OPC.   Open connectivity via open standards.  We just didn’t have a splashy ad campaign about it.

Of course I’ve also heard it call Oh Please Connect or Ongoing Pain and Concern.  It’s these folks I really want to connect with.  Many things are a frustrating experience at first without a little guidance and understanding.  Who among use hasn’t tried to assemble IKEA furniture and wondered what the hell the little bubble guy is trying to tell you?

OPC and IKEA
Oh well it saves IKEA money on having to translate their user manuals into a billion languages.  The difference is, if our customers don’t understand, we lose money.   And they lose out on OPC.  There are quite a few misconceptions about OPC floating about.  Gary Mintchell had a few thoughts regarding some blog ‘rants’ on OPC.  Let’s see if I can help clear the air on some other stuff.  Let’s start by saying what OPC is not.  OPC is not a protocol. It is not Microsoft’s attempt at re-branding DDE.  It is not a particular vendor’s product.  It was never meant to be a magical ActiveX control for VB programmers.  And probably most importantly, it is not the silver bullet that will solve absolutely every communication problem that exists.

We live in the real world here (we can’t all skip around in Oz), and I’ve been involved on both sides of the continuum; writing and selling OPC products, as well as designing, installing and supporting OPC products.  For any of the project engineers out there, I don’t have to tell you that when it’s your neck on the block, you want to have faith in the solution you are implementing.  With that said, most times I have found that OPC is the right answer (or at least not a bad answer when you look at the benefits you gain in standardizing your communication network).  That doesn’t mean OPC is always free of installation headaches, but that’s a whole kettle of fish for another post.

The vision of OPC is to be the standard, interoperable interface from the shop floor to the top floor through the enterprise of multi-vendor systems.   That covers a whole lot of data repositories, systems and vendors.  OPC has become the standard because quite frankly it does a good job.  It may not be the solution every time, but it should always be the first avenue to consider.  If you choose not to go with OPC, be sure you know why you made that decision.  The following are all too often the wrong reasons:

  • Fear of the Unknown or Complexity – If you take the custom interface route instead you will likely learn the true meaning of complex and the unknown.
  • Uninformed Technical Reasons - Get the real facts from a vendor you trust.  “I read somewhere OPC is slow” is neither true, nor a good reason.
  • Anti-Microsoft Bias – We all love to hate Bill and his monopoly, but that won’t make it go away.   OPC does not automatically rule out Linux or other non-Windows platforms.
  • Poor Experiences with a Vendor or Product. – OPC specifications are standard.  Vendors and their product implementations are not.  All restaurants serve food, that doesn’t make them all equal.

It all boils down to having some understanding of what OPC is, what it can do, what some of the pit falls are, and how to solve them.  So how do you do that?  Read a blog.  Take some training.  Better yet join me next week in Koln and find out about it one-on-one.  (Oh and read the instructions, assuming it has words).  

That does give me an idea, maybe I should get new business cards made up, and randomly scatter them around the place.  Whadda think?  Pictures seem to work for the Swedes.

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