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A Brain Shift

Control Systems Open Up to Standardization.

A Brain Shift

May 1, 2005 4:18 PM,
By Rashid Skaf

Executive Vice President, AMX Corporation

Control Systems Open Up to Standardization.

Control System Using Standard Modules.
(Click here for a larger view.)

The control systems industry is undergoing a face-lift. An industry once committed to developing proprietary systems has recently changed its tune and is beginning to embrace open standards in systems networking. The reason: standardization and open systems are essential to promote system and product interoperability. Even more importantly, standards-based technologies have boosted the systems integration market, delivering on the opportunity to develop innovative new applications that offer clear advantages to customers.

Before we address the benefits of standards, it is important to show some examples of how standards emerged in other industries and to demonstrate the significant influence they have had on our industry today.

The Invention of Ethernet

Ethernet was invented in 1973 by Bob Metcalfe, who first described it in a memo to his colleagues at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Xerox had asked Metcalfe to develop a solution that would enable all of PARC’s computers to print with the laser printer the company had just created. The network had to be fast enough to drive the advanced new laser printer, and it had to connect hundreds of computers within the same building.

In the three decades since Metcalfe invented it, Ethernet has undergone many changes and is continually evolving to enable new applications and capabilities. It remains a model of an open technology and thrives because anyone can develop around it. Its simplicity, scalability, and robust application development environment have made Ethernet a ubiquitous technology. Since the computing industry standardized on Ethernet, many devices and applications have become Ethernet-enabled, including digital video recorders, audio/video equipment, media centers, gaming consoles–and control systems. Many competing proprietary protocols have failed over the years, particularly IBM’s Token Ring.

Universal adoption usually drives down the cost of standards-based technology, attracting new developers to accelerate its capabilities. The emergence of Wi-Fi has offered an opportunity for further growth of Ethernet. This potential has been demonstrated in our industry by the increase in wireless control system introductions over the past couple of years.

The Invention of Linux

Linux was originally invented by Linus Torvalds, a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Torvalds was trying to develop an operating system alternative to Unix. Small PC users were forced away from Unix because vendors priced it so high and because the Unix source code was not widely published.

Torvalds released version 1 of the Linux kernel in 1994. The kernel is at the heart of all Linux systems. It is this kernel that forms the base around which a Linux operating system is developed. The Linux kernel’s source code is freely available to everyone. There are now literally hundreds of companies and organizations and an equal number of individuals that have released their own versions of operating systems based on the Linux kernel.

In addition to the fact that it is freely open, Linux’s capabilities, flexibility, and robustness have made it a major alternative to proprietary operating systems. IBM, HP, and others have embraced Linux and support its ongoing development. More than a decade after its initial release, Linux’s growing development community and available tools make it the operating system of choice for companies, educational institutions, and individuals worldwide.

Industry Transformation

Traditionally, control systems have been used for centralized control of electronic devices in single or multiple rooms. However, the standardization of transport mechanisms has led to a whole host of new applications that change the way our customers use control systems.

Ethernet is the key driver in the development of the new applications that are transforming the control system industry. At one time, there were approximately 75 competing LAN technologies. The market’s choice of 802.3 and 802.5 Ethernet ensured enough backing for their survival and growth. The same is true of the Internet, which started as a closed system at universities but eventually opened up so that applications could be built on top of it.

The term “killer app” typically means an application that makes someone go out to buy a certain device. With the Internet, consumers have gone from just purchasing a computer for word processing to depending upon email and e-commerce for a range of essential personal and business purposes.

Control system customers have a range of new killer apps spurred by standardization of Ethernet and the Internet at their disposal. One of the most important capabilities offered by these applications is the ability to operate control systems from any place, at any time. No longer do users have to physically touch a local panel to make an event happen; they can control events remotely via the Internet.

Standards-based technologies also facilitate the management of control systems. Users can configure presets to turn equipment on or off, start presentations, dim lights, close curtains, and perform other functions that prepare a room for use. Not only do standards offer more flexibility, they also offer the opportunity to deliver innovative new applications to the panel such as streaming media, gaming, and IP telephony.

Transporting applications across standard Ethernet has opened up a whole new market for connectivity between systems. Opening up a language means more people can build applications for that language. Once you have a standard foundation, such as Ethernet, the application can be built on top of it. This creates economies of scale and reduces the cost of the technology, as well as the cost of integrating the technology.

It is important to understand that the core of control systems has to remain proprietary for security reasons. For example, you would not want to leave the core of the system open when there is a chance the system could be crashed and cause damage, such as in government or healthcare applications. What we advocate opening up is the interconnection, or transport mechanisms, of the system in order to spur innovation.

As demands increase for systems integrators to think outside of the control system box for their customers, control systems manufacturers can ease integrators’ burden by offering standards-based solutions that allow them to easily and efficiently leverage new killer apps.

Product Interoperability Drives Progress

We believe open standards are particularly crucial in the control systems industry to ensure that all manufacturers’ products communicate seamlessly with one another. When our customers are involved in a project with sophisticated AV equipment, they want these devices to integrate with control equipment as easily as possible.

As I mentioned earlier, cooperative efforts on the part of consortiums and foundations dedicated to open standards in the computing industry have raised much-needed attention for the cause.

The need to develop standard modules or code blocks has been a hot topic of conversation among the members of the Independent Programmers Council, an ICIA member council created to serve the needs and interests of control systems programmers by providing collective feedback to vendors, defining standards of practice, and sharing professional resources. Steve Greenblatt, president of Control Concepts and a member of the council’s steering committee, says standard code blocks are vital to the success of manufacturers, integrators, and independent programmers.

“Having standard modules would be a significant time-saver for the programmer, enabling us to pass those savings along to the customer. [The modules] also would enable us to more easily and efficiently program devices we have limited experience with because the code is already established. Lastly, and likely most valuable, would be the ability to swap out devices, which limits the number of programming changes [required] each time devices are removed or replaced. Overall, having standard code blocks will streamline programming, create new applications, and ease the integration process.”

AMX has taken a step in simplifying the process of integrating manufacturers’ equipment with AMX control technology. Duet is an extension of AMX’s NetLinx platform that provides dealers the opportunity to integrate AMX systems using the standards-based Java programming language.

Increasing Resource Availability

Until recently, the primary focus in systems integration has been the use of IP-based protocols to control audio/video equipment using Ethernet and Wi-Fi interfaces. Some manufacturers are even delivering content using IP standards. But, just as the computer industry has benefited from the standardization of application interfaces and file formats, the systems integration industry needs to consider the benefits of using standards for programming control systems.

Proprietary programming languages used widely in the industry today have many control-centric features, such as pulsing IR codes or controlling relays. However, standard languages provide benefits that proprietary languages cannot. One major benefit is resource availability. It can take three to six months and expensive training classes for a new employee to become proficient in a proprietary language. As control systems programmers become more knowledgeable in standard programming languages, control systems manufacturers can leverage this experience. According to a 2002 AMX survey, more than half of AMX’s programmers have experience in at least one standard programming language, such as Java, C, or C++.

In recent years, several control system manufacturers have migrated to standard programming languages such as Java, JavaScript, VisualBasic, and C/C++. Even though the specific implementations have met with mixed results, the overall industry response to standard languages has been positive.

Popular open source forums such as SourceForge and FreshMeat show 21 percent of the open source code is developed in C, 18 percent in C++, and 17 percent in Java. Another indication is the TCPIndex Programming Language Popularity chart, updated monthly based on data gleaned from Internet search engines. In March 2005, the most popular programming languages were C at 20 percent, Java a close second at 19 percent, and C++ at 12 percent. Java is on track to take over the lead position in just a few months.

This is not to say that we should open up the industry to anyone who can program in a standard language. Hands-on experience and “tribal knowledge” are critically essential to the development of successful integrated system solutions. Several industry consortiums, such as ICIA and CEDIA, provide excellent education programs for both AV and IT personnel. By cross-training AV personnel on IP technologies and IT personnel on AV technologies, the industry can dramatically increase the number of qualified resources available. This will provide the needed stimulus to take this industry to the next level.

Just as they did for other industries, standards will have a positive impact on the control systems industry. We’re heading into a new era of change in the AV industry, one in which standards can be a key influence by providing a consensus-driven roadmap we can all use to focus our efforts to achieve mutual success.

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