Generate big benefits by implementing Thin Clients

ACP International Sales Manager, Keith Jones (pictured alongside) has been involved for over 20 years in computer systems engineering in the manufacturing arena.

Currently based in California, Jones has lived and worked in the UK, Singapore and Dubai. 

He is tasked with supporting and developing ACP’s international channel.

Jones recently spoke with PACE magazine about the concepts and practice behind Thin Client setups.

Can you outline the key business benefits of Thin Clients?
The business benefits of a Thin Client architecture come from lower capital costs for hardware, improved availability and security, and ongoing general operations costs, which using the right hardware and software architectures can be reduced by up to 70% annually.

Traditionally, people have implemented automation solutions with computers everywhere – on the plant floor, in control rooms, in the administration buildings. The PCs are connected with an automation network on one side and an office network on the other.

The two don’t mix. If you contrast that with a Thin Client setup, what you have at the operator station is a low cost, ruggedised, diskless, fanless unit.

This unit only needs to have the user interface which communicates over the network to the application running on a server. ACP’s flagship product, ThinManager, is used to enable easy and secure management of such architectures.

Using Thin Clients enables users to drastically reduce the number of PCs in their organisation and there are several good reasons to do this. PCs are an inherently weak link and have a limited life span.

I like to quote the example of one of my customers who has a smelting plant. He has 50 PCs operating in a reasonably dirty environment. Even by putting these PCs in boxes, their lifetime is about two years. Essentially, every fortnight he needs to attend to a failed PC.

A team member needs to go the store and get a new one, image the disk or reinstall the OS, install the application software, configure and bring it up to date, take it to the site where the failed unit is located, and replace the unit.

That’s an eight hour operation for an engineer. While they are attending to the failed PC, the process is down and has to be catered for by a manual operation.

ACP is represented locally by Wonderware Australia.

What happens if a Thin Client fails?
Well, we have customers that have been running these units for 10 years. But if it does fail, an operator or an unskilled person goes and gets one out of stores. Typically, they’re much lower cost than a PC, so there’s lower inventory cost. The operator goes to the location of the failed unit, takes all of the wires out of the old unit, plugs them into the new unit and then powers up.

ThinManager is designed to manage the clients as well as the servers and is basically designed for automation rather than  the office.The next thing the operator is aware of is an application that’s back in front of him after a five or 10 minute operation.

While he’s handling the changeover, the process is still running because the applications are running on terminal servers in a clean room, centrally controlled and secure.

So there’s been no physical application down time, just the user interface when the operator had to have his unit changed.

The other scenario concerns availability. You’ve got all of your eggs in this basket called a server – running 15, 20, 25 different applications in there. That’s no real different to the mainframe days. What happens if that server fails?

Well, ThinManager is responsible for determining a series of available computing resources that the applications can run on. So should a server fail – that is running HMI for example – ThinManager determines the next best available PC and delivers it to the operator.

Without the operator doing anything, he’s got his applications back again in front of him, and ThinManager has managed the failure on that side of the server.

Now, if that operator was doing something crucial like pouring hot steel, you can’t afford even a few minutes of screen blankness while switching from one machine to an-other.

ThinManager has a feature called Instant Failover – essentially the primary application and the backup application are available to the operator. If the primary system crashes, within a second it will switch to the backup application and put it in front of the operator.

What are the security features of Thin Clients?
The overall architecture of a Thin Client network lends itself to an improved security model. I know of two operations, one in the UK and one in South Africa, where an operator caused three days of plant disruption by simply trying to get some music onto the system by putting in an infected USB key and having that virus injected into the plant’s PC-based system.

With a Thin Client solution, ThinManager abstracts the operator from the operating system. The Thin Client may have USB ports which are usable for things like a local keyboard and a local mouse, but they are not connected to the server in any way. There’s no way of injecting other software into the core operating system.

ThinManager enables you to configure just the applications that the operator needs to be displayed on the screen in front of him. If he’s only permitted to see one HMI application, it’s the only one that goes on to the screen.

Now, if his supervisor comes in and needs to access SAP or work order processing, for example, he can sign into that terminal and have his applications brought to him, including a full desktop if he needs it. He can have those applications follow him around the plant and they are locked to his capabilities.

How do companies typically migrate to a Thin Client environment?
There are a number of ways. It usually involves first moving applications from PCs around the plant floor to a central terminal server – installing the applications on those terminal servers and then accessing them exactly as you would with a remote desktop session.

Once you’ve got the ability to do that, you’re half way there. You then need to replace the client PCs from the floor with Thin Clients. If you really need PCs there, you use something like WinTMC, which is a ThinManager Thin Client emulator for Windows.

We have two pieces of software which will actually emulate a Thin Client in case you really need to have a PC, or maybe you haven’t fully amortised the cost of your hardware. You can do it in a gradual hybrid manner.

How do companies future-proof their investment?
The Thin Client is doing a very simple task – it’s taking graphic information from the server and displaying that on its screen or screens and it’s taking keyboard input back.

ThinManager is responsible for determining a series of available computing resources that the applications can run on.We’ve got installations  that are still running with 486-based Thin Clients. The Thin Client is not a big quad core, multi-gigabyte computing beast.

Single core is fine; dual core is only needed if you've got a lot of graphics processing or multiple screens. Half a gigabyte of memory is all it requires.

The future-proofing comes from the way the Thin Client is architected. When a Thin Client powers up it, looks on the network for a boot server to get started.

ThinManager is a boot server and sends a core image to that client. It also sends a configuration and any other pieces of software that it might need.

From the future proofing perspective, we ensure you are always able to deliver the operating image version you need, especially if you’re in a validated industry. Since the very first release, ThinManager has been backwards compatible.

Thin Clients get their instructions from the server. You future proof by making sure that the application management software will always be able to handle those Thin Clients.

Are Thin Clients feasible for smaller organisations?
In reality, there is an entry level network size that you need. We licence our software by the number of Thin Clients you’re managing and we don’t sell licences with less than five seats.

That said, I have seen customers with two or three terminals out there because they’re finding great value in the level of functionality that ThinManager delivers.

As you get more clients, it gets much more sensible.We have a flexible licensing system which allows for an Enterprise to configure a system permitting unlimited client connections.  As we hit about the 35 client mark, you would implement this. But that’s just a licensing issue.

Which industry sectors are you targeting?
I can go by what we find in our general customer demographics. Mining and metals production is a significant area for ThinManager in Australia. Globally this our fourth largest sector behind food & beverage, pharmaceuticals and packaged goods.

Thin Clients have very ruggedised capabilities. Some of them can operate in temperatures up to 85 degrees – that’s a very useful feature in a mining environment. There are models with hazardous environment capabilities and can work in explosive environments.

We have implementations in the Xstrata Raglan Nickel Mine, Vale, Chevron Mining and Rio Tinto Copper among others.

How does ACP differentiate itself in the market?
ACP products were designed from the ground up to work in an automation environment. Most of the competitive products out there come from hardware vendors and they tend to be built around the office environment.

I can give you an example: Instant Failover. If you’re working on a Word document and the server crashes there’s absolutely no point in getting another copy of Word in front of you within one second because you've lost the document.

In an industrial architecture you do not have a document centric model. It is a network centric model where your data is available on the network. There’s great value in turning over within a second because the data that’s coming into the second copy of the application is contemporaneous – it is actual real time information that the operator sees and needs.

ThinManager is designed to manage the clients as well as the servers. It manages the users and applications on those servers and it does so securely. It’s basically designed for automation rather than the office.

Do you adopt an open architecture?
We've just released our latest version which has considerable improvements in the way that it handles Thin Clients. In the past the Thin Client had to be ThinManager aware, based upon a special BIOS file in there. So it would look for a ThinManager server.

The business benefits of a Thin Client architecture come from lower capital costs for hardware, improved availability and security, and ongoing general operations costs, which using the right hardware and software architectures can be reduced by up to 70% annually.Now we've removed that need and this has opened up ThinManager to practically any Thin Client out there delivering vendor independence on the hardware side.

We've also implemented some more virtual machine management capability inside ThinManager.

You can use ThinManager with virtual machines such as Hyper-V, VMware or any other type of machine. With the 6.0 release, we can actually manage VMware ESXi servers inside ThinManager.

In ThinManager 6 we have also improved the IP camera capability. That’s the ability of ThinManager to take an image from an IP camera, similar on your plant network, and put it anywhere else, like on a Thin Client screen or on a control room screen.

We have two new Apple iPhone or iPad pieces of software. iTMC is an operator level software which enables the operator to have a mobile Thin Client terminal wherever he walks.

ThinManager Mobile enables an administrator to have a copy of ThinManager with him wherever he is on the plant. That gives him, as an admin person, the ability to see what’s on any screen, anywhere in the network. He can configure, change, grant access, deny access, stop, start any Thin Client.

What are the challenges in implementing a Thin Client solution?
The main challenge is to make sure you've got a network infrastructure that is not going to let you down. Instead of a local PC doing all the work, you’re moving to an architecture where your application runs on a centralised server and is being delivered to the operator.

First of all, you need to make sure that your network is in place. ThinManager will enable you to strengthen your network and have multiple backup networks.

Next, make sure your applications are capable of running in a remote desktop environment. Usually that’s not a problem, certainly in automation where applications are able to run in a terminal services configuration.

ThinManager is responsible for determining a series of available computing resources that the applications can run on.Then it’s a matter of budgeting for your servers. These servers are typically, two, maybe three, machines, much more powerful than the PCs they’re replacing.

A typical server might be able to run 15 or 20 HMIs. So you could well be replacing 15 PCs with one server. There’s a cost saving there, but it is an investment.

Then, you've got to buy your Thin Clients which range in price from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars, depending on their capabilities, environmental ruggedness, built in touch panels and so on.

You need to budget for this. The good thing is you can do this in a staged process by implementing a hybrid architecture as you migrate.

People sometimes question why they should purchase a $400 Thin Client when they can get a more powerful new PC for close to the same price. Well, I've seen people running $300, $400, $500 PCs on a plant – and they sit inside a $2000 container just to keep off the dust.

You've got a capital expenditure on your Thin Client, but it’s usually not as dramatic as you would expect. These units will last far in excess of a typical PC’s lifetime. The mean time between failures for a Thin Client can be extremely long.

[ACP is represented locally by Wonderware Australia.]

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