In June this year Microsoft unveiled their .NET strategy. Even the most loyal Microsoft acolytes might be forgiven for thinking that, with Windows DNA and Windows DNA 1000 not yet fully assimilated into the collective consciousness, this time Microsoft might have gone a technology too far.
On the subject of .NET, Bill Gates is quite forthright. He talks in terms of 'betting the company' and of .NET being Microsoft's third major wave - first MS DOS, then MS Windows, and now MS .NET. The fundamental idea behind .NET is that the focus is shifting from individual websites to constellations of computers, devices and services that work together to deliver broader, richer solutions. It will help drive a transformation in the Internet that will see HTML-based presentation augmented by XML-based information. The key difference being that XML-based protocols like SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) allow users to interact meaningfully with data, thereby turning it into information instead of just viewing the data in a read-only sense which tends to be the case now.
The situation that currently prevails, with individual websites operating as data silos despite copious amounts of bandwidth, is similar to the situation common in many companies before the advent of the PC and local area networking, where corporate mainframes and departmental minicomputers were custodians of huge amounts of data.
What does all this mean for scada - a relatively tiny, if technologically challenging, niche market from an overall IT perspective? Despite its niche market status, scada has not been immune from the buffeting caused by successive waves of change. First the PC and DOS, then the various Windows generations: Windows 3.x, Windows NT, Windows 9x, Windows 2000. Each generation has been loosely accompanied by so-called key technologies: DDE, NetDDE, OLE, COM, ActiveX, SQL, ADO, DCOM, COM+, etc. Broadly speaking, things have improved for end-user and system integrator alike. Prices have continued to fall in real terms, performance and reliability have generally improved, and the scale and magnitude of the applications attempted has increased.
Most leading scada vendors have hitched themselves to the mainstream Microsoft bandwagon over the last few years. This has meant that solutions have tended to be single platform - specifically the Wintel platform. Even COM and DCOM, which were meant to herald the era of component software and distributed components respectively, have delivered at best in a limited sense, and then only on the single Wintel platform.
Part of the problem with COM/DCOM is that it provides a tightly coupled solution where objects are instantiated remotely across processes and even machine boundaries. This approach brings complexity and baggage, such as having to maintain object and class versioning information, reference counts, etc. The XML-based Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) fundamental to .NET follows instead a much more loosely coupled approach. This means that computers, devices and services participating in the delivery of some overall end-user solution can, and almost certainly will, run on different platforms: Wintel, Linux, Sun, etc, provided they all implement SOAP. Not to be left out are WAP capable devices such as PDAs and next-generation mobile phones.
Where does all this leave today's practising automation engineer or IT consultant, faced with choosing a scada, HMI or MES system for an upcoming project? The answer is to go for a system that has at its heart an open, object model, where every property of every object is exposed via a programmable automation interface (Open Automation Technology). A system where features such as clustering and redundancy are fundamental and built-in, not added by user-defined scripts, etc. A system fully exploiting the 'currently shipping' technologies mentioned above such as ADO, SQL, ActiveX, COM/DCOM. Only in this way can you be reasonably sure that a system you choose today will allow your organisation to fully exploit all the e-opportunities of the future.
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