Open for business

Embracing open systems and open architectures is a surefire way to lower your costs and get to market quicker with the latest technology. Or is it? Dave Wilson sees a few complications.

‘My formula for success is rise early, work late, and strike oil’ – Paul Getty.

Ten years ago, the industrial control and automation business was a closed shop. Most of you had your own proprietary system solutions that you were unwilling to open up to third-party software tools and hardware.

The reason was obvious – money. If you sold a closed system, no other ‘Johnny Come Lately’ could come along and stick his cheap stuff into your customer’s system.

On the other hand, if things went wrong, it was your technical support team that got paid to sort things out. And they could always be counted upon to do just that. That was your unique selling point.

But the proponents of the open software and hardware architectures leveraged their cost advantages right down your throat for so long that you had no alternative but to embrace the approach or go under, didn’t you?

And that’s when it all began: The era of open systems. Open software. Open bus structures. Open platforms. If it wasn’t open, it didn’t sell.

Reluctantly, you even started promoting the advantages of the open systems approach yourself. To the delight, naturally, of your customer base who saw costs fall and profit margins increase.

And you were happy to be led down the path to automation salvation by your new evangelist – a company that had already made the Word ‘open’ so palatable to its consumer base through its domination of the global operating systems market.

But then one day, a terrible thing happened. A disgruntled employee at the huge software corporation posted the source code for its most popular operating system – the one that you were using – onto the Internet. And the flaws in it became immediately obvious to a group of rather badly behaved chaps in a former republic of the Soviet Union.

With nothing better to do, these naughty fellas hopped through a firewall and gained access to your remote monitoring and control system that was handling the delivery of tens of thousands of barrels of oil a day through a rather large pipeline in the Middle East.

To your abject horror, the hackers started to randomly shut down some of the pumping stations along the pipeline that your system was supposed to be controlling. Eventually, the oil stopped flowing altogether.

You marshalled your entire engineering resource to fix the problem. And thankfully they did. Not at an insignificant cost, of course.

Rather swiftly after that you abandoned the Church of the Open System for good. Your engineering teams certainly had their work cut out to re-engineer all that software. But you secured a lot of the necessary funding from the US Department of Homeland Security.

Despite the headaches, wasn’t it gratifying that your customers had finally seen the logic of what you had been telling them all those years ago?