Are Microsoft technologies still best for process control systems?

Engineering and IT Insight: Process control architects and designers are questioning the 15-year wisdom that you cannot go wrong by picking the Microsoft environment for a process control system. See 6 critical requirements for process controls.


Use of Microsoft technologies is creating growing concerns among senior designers and senior architects in control system suppliers. Microsoft technology is widely used as the underlying basis for process control systems, such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), human machine interface (HMI), distributed control system (DCS) displays, historians, manufacturing execution systems (MES), and batch execution systems. Since 1998, when Microsoft Windows 98 was released, the Microsoft Windows platform has been the de facto standard for most control system suppliers. Below, see six critical requirements for process control systems.

While the hard real-time control systems, such as PLCs and embedded DCS controllers, have not moved to a Microsoft environment, almost all other parts of process control systems have moved to Microsoft Windows servers, MS-SQL databases, and Windows desktop operating systems. Most suppliers have followed the "every other release" strategy, skipping Microsoft Windows ME (2000), using Windows XP (2001), skipping Windows Vista (2007), using Windows 7 (2009), and many are now looking at skipping Windows 8.

For the past two decades consumer software has been the driving force in operating system and user interface in manufacturing systems. Control system suppliers have applied consumer technologies as they have become reliable enough for industrial applications. However, today is a different situation. This is a period of intense change in consumer products with tablets and smartphones replacing laptops, laptops replacing desktop systems, and new user interface models and services under continual change. Continual change is not what control systems need. Many control systems have lifetimes of 20 to 30 years. Some of the systems developed using the 1980-1990 VAX/VMS technology from Digital Equipment Corp. are only now being replaced. The concern among architects and designers is that the consumer software may not stabilize for many years and the cost of trying to apply the software to manufacturing is starting to exceed the benefits. The current consumer infrastructures are so complex that there are usually multiple security and safety updates per month. Many process control suppliers are spending more development budget on testing, validation, and distribution of patches than they are spending on new development. Additionally, no one expects this situation to get any better. In fact, it may get worse as infrastructure complexity continues to increase.

When major changes happen in the user interface, many manufacturing companies are looking at the cost to completely retrain their operations workforce to a system with at best a 5-year lifetime, with no measurable benefit over the existing system and a great opportunity for mistakes and errors that can stop production and risk plant safety. In particular, Microsoft Windows 8 provides the same interface on a 3-in. phone as on a 27-in. monitor, significantly reducing the usefulness of an HMI in high-information content tasks. Yet this is the situation control system vendors face when trying to keep up with the consumer changes.

Consumer oriented operating systems also always want to call home to the vendor and perform an auto update. This can occur even if auto update is turned off, because we all know consumers won't update critical patches if left on their own. However, this behavior is the opposite for manufacturing, which requires stability, safety, and validation of patches. There are too many examples of patches causing operational problems, or just being wrong, to allow systems to patch themselves without human intervention.

These issues are causing architects and designers to question the 15-year wisdom that you cannot go wrong by picking the Microsoft environment for your process control system.

6 critical process control needs

Process control vendors require:

  1. A system with a minimal attack surface, so that biweekly or monthly patches are not required
  2. A consistent programming interface that will not change every four to five years, requiring a complete rewrite of their software
  3. An environment that can be quickly and safely "locked down" to reduce the risk from hacking
  4. A system with limited network access, only through specific ports to reduce the risk of network based attacks
  5. Support for priority-based multi-tasking, preferably a real-time operating system (RTOS) that supports hard real-time requirements
  6. A robust ecosystem of utilities and tools to make development, installation, debugging, and maintenance as easy as it is on consumer systems.

The process automation market is estimated at about $130 billion, more than large enough to support a dedicated software infrastructure market. Maybe, if the grumbling by architects and designers reaches a tipping point, the process control market can force current suppliers, like Microsoft, Apple, and Google, to develop systems designed for process control, or the process control vendors may collectively move to Linux derived systems. Only time will tell, but watch for movement away from rapidly changing consumer technologies to more stable solutions that will still be valid 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years from today.

- Dennis Brandl is president of BR&L Consulting in Cary, N.C., His firm focuses on manufacturing IT. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering and Plant Engineering,


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Eddy , GA, United States, 02/27/14 02:55 PM:

Microsoft technologies have never been the best for process control systems.

For the first five of the six requirements listed Linux is vastly superior to Windows.
JOHN , CO, United States, 02/27/14 07:04 PM:

I predict a move to Linux, especially because of security.
RAY , AL, United States, 02/28/14 12:21 PM:

Microsoft has never been concerned about the needs of the control industry, but with Win 8 has seemingly taken a path as openly hostile to it as Apple was when it introduced its (no programming needed—or allowed) MacIntosh. It is far past time for the industry giants to actively (give money) support the development of an open-source “community” operating system over which they can control and protect current system investment while supporting emerging and desirable technology advancements (printers, storage, networking, etc.). Whether this would entail modifying Unix/Linux to provide deterministic (real-time) functionality or developing a system with existing “building blocks” code is up for discussion. Let's see, it's 2014 and the IBM PC came out in 1981...No real-time operating system in 33 years. Guess we'll have to hitch up our pants and do it ourselves if we really want one. Who's willing to get busy and do it?
Joseba , OH, United States, 02/28/14 02:41 PM:

Is funny the fact that people think about Linux as a secure choice... don't make me wrong, I guess that windows is only roughly good for desktop purposes (I am a mac lover) but linux isn't the best choice when you are looking for security or reliability. Their source code is open, means that anybody can modify it and the quality control is not the best. My best choice are BSD flavors... The OpenBSD project produces a FREE, multi-platform 4.4BSD-based UNIX-like operating system. They emphasize portability, standardization, correctness, proactive security and integrated cryptography. As example, they only have two remote holes in the default install, in a heck of a long time!
Joseba , OH, United States, 02/28/14 02:47 PM:

Somehow, whoever wants to use UNIX/Linux in their automation, National Instruments give you the option to run some software under GNU/Linux
Glenn , Canada, 02/28/14 07:59 PM:

I agree with the general concern with Windows and have since the late 90's when I first saw it in industrial settings. But in my industry (pulp & paper), Windows is used for operator stations, configuration stations and the only control application is OPC. The stability and life-span of Windows has not been a problem. Firstly, no one in our industry connects such PC's to the internet or anything outside the DCS and its subordinates. Second, MS updates to the operating system are *not* done. Most of my clients are using XP or Server 2003 with some 7. NT is almost all gone. The concept is that if they have run for some years reliably, there is no need for an update and it's an unnecessary risk. In fact, upgrades to the vendor's DCS software, especially the eng'g software is typically done every 5-10 years whereas I could still be running XP from 2000. I personally have programs from the 80's and 90's that work fine with OS's I have today so upward compatibility is high. BTW, I've never heard of a Windows update occurring with Update turned off. Also, regarding the consistent programming interface (item 2), most of Windows still adheres to the Win32 API from ~1995. So don't use Windows for control except OPC, and don't update the OS if it works fine.
Glenn , Canada, 02/28/14 08:02 PM:

How about QNX? It's an RTOS that the Bailey DCS used to use and I believe Siemens still does. It has a large installed base (in embedded systems like cars AFAIK).
Glenn , Canada, 02/28/14 09:15 PM:

Adding to previous comments, I also agree that we need an industrial OS. Now, most vendors make their own in the controllers and uses windows for HMI and configuration. I know one that uses Linux in the controllers (process stations) themselves. Windows was likely adopted for operator stations because consumer-software is cheap with a huge choice of software.
CRAIG , NJ, United States, 03/04/14 12:09 PM:

For an OEM, such as my company, it depends on what the suppliers such as Wonderware, Rockwell, and Siemens do. If they provide an open solution that doesn't use Windows, I think we would be interested.
Anonymous , 03/04/14 03:49 PM:

i work for a printing equipment manufacturer. we used to use QNX (2 and 4), but switched to WinNT and later WinXP embedded. of the two, i prefer QNX6/Neutrino, because it's a microkernel system. only the microkernel itself is required, with the handling of filesystems, processes, and other subsystems being add-ons. U only need to include what U need, so if U're careful when U build your embedded system, U can have a system that a cracker won't even recognize, let alone be able to compromise. unless U're willing to roll your own, however, U're pretty much stuck with MS Win for HMIs.

OTOH, both MS Windows and QNX require licenses and all the compliance baggage that comes with it. in my book, open source (either BSD or Linux) delivers a far better bang for the buck, because U can examine *every* *single* *bit* of the OS and application code, if U really need that much security. if U want to avoid distributing the source code, stick with BSD*, which doesn't enforce source-sharing for distributed code.

finally, both BSD and Linux expose all source code, which means that *U* can check every bit of it for security vulnerabilities. good luck trying to do that with *any* version of MS Windows (or the core of QNX Neutrino).
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