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Linux Makes Automation, Infrastructure Strides

The Power of Tux

  • January 21, 2003
  • By Brian Proffitt

There is an interesting irony in the technology that surrounds us. Tools that have been built by the human race are so advanced that they are no longer able to be controlled and operated by those same bipedal creatures with the cool opposable thumbs. One company is introducing some new technology that will let Linux handle these enormous and complex tasks.

A lot of technology has become bigger than us, it seems. We could not manually operate the thousands of different switches it takes to establish a phone call to our Uncle Poindexter in Bippus, Indiana. We could not manually tune the satellite dish frequencies necessary to bring in the latest episode of Six Feet Under bouncing off a piece of metal hundreds of miles over our head. It's simply too much to handle.

None of this is news to many of us, but it is not something we think about on a daily basis. We turn the light on and expect the power to be there. Seldom is much thought given to how that power gets there. Unless you work for the power company. Or the company that designs the software running on the power company's computers.

This, then, brings us to Verano, a Boston-based firm who's line of products is the kind of software that will manage the automation processes for manufacturing plants and utility companies in North America and Europe. This is a specialized kind of automation that must deal with controlling processes in real-time while (ideally) letting the enterprise side of the company have access to the data so that financial and business planning decisions can be formulated.

Verano has a lot of experience in this area, having produced software for commercial UNIX platforms to run in such corporations as Innogy, which manages 78 percent of the power needs for the United Kingdom. This is done with Verano's SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) platform, which allows plant managers, control workers, and company executives to fully access exactly what data and controls they need to keep all of the business humming along.

With this legacy fully in place, Verano has recently made the announcement that they have moved their SCADA software over to the Linux platform, which makes this the first time Linux has ever been used for such complex automation processes.

According to Pan Kamal, Verano's new product, Performux, is geared to run on Red Hat Advanced Server, and now opens the option of using Intel-based servers to run SCADA-type operations. Kamal, vice president of marketing at Verano, said that Performux is a natural progression for many of Verano's customers, since much of their control software runs on UNIX already.

Using Linux as part of the process control of an automated plant also allows even better process integration with the rest of the company, since, unlike UNIXes, Linux can be run on middle-tier and client machines.

"Now they can run some applications off of the big iron and on commodity-class Intel servers," Kamal said.

Using Linux also fits in with Verano's Instant Awareness philosophy, which uses some of the same technology found in instant messaging protocols to get information in an automated plant out to the people who need it.

Linux's security and stability, Kamal said, also make it a suitable candidate to move into this space. It's ability to interface with legacy plant devices certainly does not hurt either. Nor does the price tag--Performux comes in at 15 percent lower than Verano's UNIX-based software.

Kamal revealed that this will not be a one-shot Linux product for Verano.

Performux is itself a highly secure product, but there are some companies where security is more paramount than others. After the September 11 attacks, many infrastructure facilities became aware that they could be potential targets of outside attack.

While these facilities--dams, power plants, water treatment plants--upgraded their physical security, their managers were also painfully aware that a computer-based attack could render these facilities as useless as any bomb could.

For this special class of facility, Verano is planning the introduction of a new product this week during the LinuxWorld Expo: the Linux-based Secure SCADA.

Much of the technology of Secure SCADA is the same software code found in Performux, but what Verano did was harden the underlying Red Hat Linux code with the National Security Agency's SE Linux extensions. After this Linux base was integrated with the rest of the Performux code, Secure SCADA was then further hardened with Verano's own security features, such as a comprehensive security console.

In many of these types of facilities, there is oft-times a security gap between the process-control network and the corporate LAN. Kamal explained that Secure SCADA is the best wedge to place within this gap, since this hardened software would prevent any cyber-intruder from coming in through this gaps.

Secure SCADA, like Performux, is a unique offering for these kinds of facilities, and not just because it is Linux-based, Kamal explained. The idea of allowing flexible thin-client control over all of a facility's processes while maintaining such a high level of security is another aspect of its unique nature.

"No one else is doing this," he said.

Given the success Linux has had in other IT arenas, it is doubtful that this will remain the only example of Linux in high-end automation and infrastructure for long.

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