April 2009

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How a video store proves the need for real-time data access

Knowledge is power, and having the right knowledge at the right time most definitely improves any companyís bottom line.

Manny Mandrusiak

 

Manny Mandrusiak
Vice President of OPC Marketing,

OPC Foundation

As a child my father often told me that in life, inspiration sometimes presents itself in unusual places.  I found my inspiration for this article was actually found in my local video store.  I recently relocated to Arizona from Canada and ran into some unique challenges while getting myself established.   I often forget that Canada and the United States are two unique countries mainly because our cultures are so intertwined.  I naturally assumed that information between companies that have stores and outlets in both countries would naturally be easily accessible.  As I quickly found out Ė it isnít, and the reason that it isnít was explained to me by someone at my local video store. 

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I wanted to rent a movie and relax on a Friday night, and to do that I tried to transfer my video membership to a local store in the US, and couldnít do it.  I had to create a new membership in a new system.  Any credits, points or rewards could not be transferred to this new account even though it was a franchise of the same store that I had frequented for years in Canada.  I could not grasp the concept that my profile could not be retrieved because I was in a different geographical location.  The very patient video store employee explained it very simply and stated that even though I was dealing with the same company that I had for years, the Canadian system and American system simply could not communicate with each other.  Being in the OPC software industry I just could not grasp the concept that these systems could not communicate with each other.  My kingdom for intersystem connectivity!  On the plus side, my late fees didnít transfer across the border either.

The entire incident got me thinking about interoperability between systems, and the fact that it is not about just moving 1ís and 0ís anymore, itís about moving information.  Information like, credit scores, account histories, membership information so that this data can be accessed safely and securely as useful information.  If you think about it objectively, the clerkís inability to be able to access my membership information caused him to not give me a membership. He wanted to give me one, but he did not have the information necessary to make the correct business decision.  Since I could not get a membership, I could not rent any movies or put any money back into his store.  He lost the initial sale and a potential long term customer because his system could not provide him with the information that he needed to make the correct business decision.  In todayís struggling economy can any company really afford to let lack of system interoperability stand in the way of generating sales?  Imagine if there were 100 people in a monthís time that the video store rejected memberships for because they could not access the necessary information.  That could result in a significant loss in income, and an impact on their bottom line for sure.

The situation above is a brilliant metaphor for implementing OPC technology, because OPC technology has time and time again proven its mettle for providing fast reliable, and accurate real-time data access.  The solution to the above problem is extremely clear: provide safe and secure data access between independent systems to the right people, so that they can make better business decisions.  Knowledge is power, and having the right knowledge at the right time most definitely improves any companyís bottom line.

As a society we live in an information rich age.  The need for improved access to real-time data is stronger than ever before. Looking at the above situation from a more industrial perspective, building control systems need the ability to securely pass streams of data through a series of connected control systems and finally to the enterprise level.  Decision makers at all levels need the ability to be able to access data from multiple control systems in geographically dispersed locations.  That being said, when greater access to data is available there is a degree of risk associated with it.  OPC is able to provide open access to a wealth of propriety protocols such as BACnet, LON, Modbus etc.  Security would then be a natural question.  No company can afford insecure communications and be left vulnerable to those with malicious intent. 

The OPC Foundation has worked hard to take security into consideration when it released the OPC Security 1.0 specification, and particularly when developing the new OPC Unified Architecture specification and have embedded built in security right into the new release of the OPC UA specification.

Reliable Controls Under the hood, OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA) is designed to maximize the power of XML to provide robust communication, and secure data exchange, through a services model.  This enables OPC UA to be easily integrated into existing building systems architectures in an extremely scalable way.  Imagine having all the functionality that the current OPC specifications provide, but with the ability to implement a base set of services where thngs like subscripting and queries are easily and securely completed.

OPC UA is completely backward compatible with current OPC products, so end-users and integrators do not have to worry about ripping out existing architectures.  This backward compatibility enables existing users of OPC products to remain customers of vendors that they are used to dealing with. 

Where some of its strength lies is that it solves the need for mapping and exchanging real-time information in an object-oriented way.  Being object-orientated, OPC UA provides re-usability of common asset and therefore a common management method for supporting extremely complex data models.  These characteristics provide OPC UA with the ability to be interoperable with non-windows platforms.  The ability to have complete freedom when building system architectures is something that end-users have wanted for years.  Having the choice to use non-windows operating systems has always been a request that was near the top of everyoneís wish list.

OPC and OPC UA are the answer to the problem of securely transferring data between independent systems, or systems with non compatible protocols.  Data can be provided to decision makers at all levels so that they can make effective decisions, and continue to focus on growing their business in the current economic environment instead of worrying about their data flow. 

On a personal note, if that clerk would have had access to my information, I truly could have made it a Blockbuster night.  Thereís my rant about incompatible systems.

If anyone is looking for more information about OPC UA they can always check out the OPC Foundation website at www.opcfoundation.org

I will say that I am greatly enjoying my experiences in Arizona.  It is a little rough getting used to watching hockey while wearing shorts, but Iím sure Iíll suffer through the pain. 

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