Friday, May 4, 2012

Automation Software: Plan for the Future with Lifecycle Management

Posted by Erik Dellinger

According to a December 2011 ARC Advisory Group report¹, today’s manufacturers are compelled to rethink their approach to software life cycle management to lessen the impact of rapid technology changes on the enterprise. This shift in thinking is especially important when migrating from obsolete or proprietary systems to new "commercial-off-the-shelf" (COTS) technology. 

Updating Your Automation Software

The same caveat applies to upgrading existing automation software: Upgrade this could encompass a complete software package or individual components like OPC servers, SNMP agents, and communication drivers. While there has been a lot of focus lately on the software lifecycle, few have been talking about the different and longer lifecycle of automation hardware on the factory floor. Hardware upgrades are not only prohibitively expensive, but also disrupt business processes. However, whether your hardware has reached the end of its lifecycle or still has 10 years of life left in it, your automation software and its upgrades should be flexible enough to last as long as your automation equipment.

High-quality automation system software may not need upgrading for four to five years (coincidentally spanning about half of the life cycle of most factory floor hardware) while COTS software applications on the user side may have a life cycle of six months to a year. The wisest and most cost-effective approach is to choose automation software that enables your business to keep pace with the latest enhancements, but takes full advantage of longer life cycle hardware. 

Evaluating the Full Lifecycle of Your Environment

Kepware recommends paying close attention to the full lifecycle when you’re evaluating software upgrades. It’s easy to get blinded by the latest “must have” features that may serve you one year at the most. Look at your business needs beyond the next six to twelve months.  Look for an upgrade solution that can enable you to expand the life cycle of your legacy hardware rather than requiring an expensive rip and replace. Consider the age and viability of your existing hardware, as well as the current software features.

  • Do the software upgrades you’re considering have a long life cycle with capabilities that will continue to be compatible as your hardware performs for the next ten years?
  • Will the software support the trend toward changing hardware firmware more often to combat security and interoperability issues?
  • Most of all, consider if the software upgrades will enable you to add additional connectivity and OS support to both new and legacy hardware. 
  • And will you be able to upgrade OPC servers, SNMP agents, communication drivers and the like?

We will continue to explore the software life cycle topic in future Kepware blog posts. Submit a comment to add to the discussion, and visit Technical Support to learn more about Kepware’s upgrade policy and how you can better manage the lifecycle of your automation systems.

¹Managing Obsolete Technologies: Strategies and Practices, Peter Reynolds, ARC Advisory Group