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Open architecture systems can be a mixed blessing


Vance J. VanDoren, Ph.D., P.E

Within the automation industry, the phrases “open system” and “open architecture” typically refer to products or equipment that end users can modify, configure and install themselves when necessary. These products have largely replaced proprietary products that only the vendor's own engineers or specially trained system integrators could customize to a particular application.

Today, open architecture products dominate the automation industry, making it much easier for end users and system integrators to assemble complete automation systems from several sources without the vendors' help. That certainly makes integration projects easier, but could open systems become so easy to implement that the end user won't need their integrators' help either?

Open system vendors don't seem to think so. Some point out that every application is unique, and therefore requires a unique solution. While automation products are becoming more flexible and easier to install and configure, highly qualified integrators with specific industry experience remain a key element of many successful automation projects. In fact, most vendors rely on system integrators to provide that expertise for end users who might not otherwise buy the vendors' products, be they open architecture or proprietary.

Still, not all system integrators will benefit from open systems technology. Open systems can eliminate a lot of custom programming, so integrators that rely on programming time to generate billable hours will lose revenue in the near term. On the other hand, open systems technology should allow them to replace the lost work with more projects that they can complete more quickly.

Even if open systems do become easy enough for end users to implement themselves, many users will still want to outsource their automation projects simply because they lack the necessary technical expertise in-house.

One service that end users will probably continue to ask of their integrator partners is to keep track of the latest developments in automation technology, many of which derive from the proliferation of open systems. As more and more products from different vendors become interoperable, thanks to their open architectures, the potential solutions for any automation problem multiply exponentially. The typical end user simply doesn't have time to consider them all and will often rely on a system integrator to sort out the best options.

After all, automation system integrators earn their keep in large part by knowing what can be done with the available technology. They make it their business to know which products are mostly hype and what can actually deliver the functionality their clients require. They also tend to know which products can actually deliver the required functionality and which tend to be hype.

Ironically, much of the hype surrounding automation products derives from claims of “openness.” Vendors claim their products conform to the latest communications and interoperability standards, but don't always make good on those promises. A seasoned integrator can save an end user from buying into exaggerated claims.

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