Stratus looks to take on industrial automation

  • Believes the operational ease of its solutions are valuable for systems "on the edge"
  • Virtualisation seen as opportunity to help industrial automation sector modernise

 

Stratus looks to take on industrial automation

 

THE US$200 billion industrial automation sector, especially in the Asian-Pacific region, is beginning to upgrade and modernise, creating opportunities for companies to propose new solutions that are more open and non-proprietary.

This was highlighted by Stratus CEO Dave Laurello, speaking at the recent Stratus Power Up conference held in Bali last week. "Look at what opportunities there are for us in Industrial Automisation," he said. "There's a unique, target-rich, opportunity for us."

Laurello was speaking to the company's business partners who use Stratus software and hardware to provide high-availability and fault-tolerant solutions. He optimistically forecasted the opportunities for Stratus in the Industrial Automation market in the near future to be anywhere from "a billion dollars to four billion plus dollars."

Laurello's optimism is founded on the company's early forays into this segment, including projects in markets as diverse as electrical power generation, oil and natural gas, and water treatment. In the latter, Stratus reported they had helped provide fault-tolerant solutions for 30 new customers in the past 18 months, including the water treatment plant built to service Shanghai Disneyland.

"So the good news is we're winning, we're starting to win, we're getting in early as these market disruptions are happening and it’s good to see we're in a very good position for the future."

Laurello believes that the strength and uniqueness of Stratus solutions that ensure critical systems are fault-tolerant is what underpins the company's success.  "We talk about seconds of down time a year. We talk of no loss of in-flight data," Laurello explained. "We believe we do it better than anyone else."

Frank Hill, the Director of Industrial Automation Business Development, touts the easy installation and maintenance of Stratus servers, which explains why it is appealing to certain markets. Stratus is targeting remote ecosystems where this simplicity is highly valued, which it calls systems on "the edge". "That means that their infrastructure is typically residing in a production facility, or on an oil platform, or out on a pipeline," explains Hill.

"We design it so that so that if any part fails, nothing happens to the running of the applications. In fact, the application won't even know that you've lost half the system," Hill explains. "You'll see a light indicating what part is bad, and you'll simply remove a screw, slide out the old and slide in the new."

The claim is that all this is done seamlessly. "In Stratus, there is no down time, there is no data loss, and the all parts are replaceable and fixable without interrupting your processes. That's true fault tolerance."

As proof of their success, Hill pointed to a project with Columbia Pipeline to install new SCADA systems in more than a hundred compression stations.

"Their first idea was to put in four Dell boxes (per compression station). But the problem was these sites don't have any people working at them. The only people going out to these sites in the day were maintenance workers (with) no IT skills."

Stratus worked with their partner to propose an alternate solution blending virtualization and Stratus fault-tolerant servers.

"Instead they selected the Stratus ftServer® with VMware®, put four VMs (virtual machines) on it, had the automated call mode set up. Now, whenever a part breaks at any one of these 105 compressing stations, the Stratus ftServer will automatically get a message, and will deliver that replacement component back."

"This has given Columbia Pipeline the ability to put in a large IT infrastructure where they could have never done it with just standard technologies," Hill concluded. "Stratus has enabled a modern infrastructure protocol."

What may be surprising is the novelty that virtualization brings to the Industrial Automation sector, given that the technology is already familiar and accepted by the IT industry as a whole.

"Virtualisation is not in its infancy," said Nick Nindra, Vice President Asia Pacific for Stratus. "It's taken a ramp up in the last six years."

This shift from a hardware-based solution to a software-based one that was more flexible brought opportunities - and challenges.

"We had a sales and service organisation and a partner ecosystem that would customise and sell million-dollar boxes. And now all of a sudden it's a fifty thousand dollar software license. So the shift was like a sharp bend."

"We had to go out there and re-educate the market about who we are. The DNA was the same, but the stripes had changed, and that required a lot of education."

But the shift has been worth it as Stratus has been reaping the benefits of touting virtualisation. "That has created a whole new market segment for us. We were traditionally a telco and a financial services player. Today, as you can see, we've got industrial automation, we've got security access control and we're moving into other areas of financial services."

Hill agrees and points out that many of the systems in Industrial Automation plants are aging.

"I've seen many industrial sites where, when you ask to see their server, they open up a closet and it's filled with old servers," he recalls.

He estimates that adoption of virtualisation in Industrial Automation in North America is currently at 50%, but that the real opportunity is in Asia Pacific.

"China in particular seem to not have adopted virtualisation as much. And it's not that they won't, they're just a couple of years behind other markets."

"People do get passionate about it. They know their non-stop platform and they don't want to change," said Paul Griffin, the Director for Payment Software Sales for NCR, a company specialising in IT solutions for the Financial Services sector. "Our biggest competition is 'do nothing'," he says.

To Griffin, the benefits of moving from a proprietary system to a more open one is obvious. "Using modern software, software that's not locked in to the vendor, our customers can independently deploy lots of change," he asserts. "You don't have to wait six months and get charged two hundred thousand dollars."

Despite this, there is a lot of resistance. "There's still that sunk cost fallacy and mentality."

Leadership from the top is also a crucial component. "For a lot of CIOs, it's their last job. They're not looking for a big, difficult project just before retirement." Griffin concludes, "It's all about a CIO who has the nerve to run a project like this,” he says of the shift to an open system

To him, the key to persuade companies to move to a new platform is as much about the 'when' as it is the 'how'. "If they understand they need to talk to us two years before their next renewal, then that's the right time. If they talk to us six months before the renewal, they're too late.

"Whether Stratus eventually takes a big chunk or just a nibble out of the Industrial Automation market depends on whether its partners can develop the sector's appetite for its products.

To that end, Stratus has developed a guidebook to modernise Industrial Automation on its website , complete with data and case studies.

It hopes that partners will use it to persuade customers that Stratus offers modern solutions for fault tolerance that are not only superior to anything else out there, but can also amazingly be cheaper.

But given the size of the Industrial Automation market and Stratus' ambitions within it, perhaps the real message that Stratus is signalling to its partners is this: work with us and the sky's the limit.

 

 
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