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Kepware Drives Automation to New Heights
May 16, 2008 – An Interview with Roy Kok, VP – Marketing, Kepware
We spoke with Roy Kok, the Vice President of marketing for Kepware Technologies. Kok has been working in the automation industry now for more than three decades, and has worked for a number of the major players in the industry such as GE Fanuc. He joined Kepware in August 2007. As he recalled, “Because I’ve been in the industry, I’ve watched Kepware and seen the growth. It became an appropriate time for me to move over, and become a part of the company.”
From KEP to Kepware
Kok described the company history which started back in 1995 as an offshoot of KEP products - Kesler Ellis Products. They manufactured a variety of automation products such as panel displays that sold widely in the automation industry. Kepware, he explained, started out as the company’s software arm, focusing on software automation products and developing human-machine interface software, which was required to ensure connectivity to devices, and to the control equipment on the plant floor.
As the company began to focus more and more on device drivers, the OPC Foundation, a standards body formed wrapping Microsoft’s OLE technology into the automation industry, thereby “making it appropriate for process controls operations. That was a standard we got involved with very early on,” and it “just started coming out in 1996. We focused on it a great deal,” and in so doing, “became purely a communications company from that point on. We’ve been doing that ever since.”
The OPC Opportunity
Recalling the emergence of the OPC Foundation, Kok explained, “What happened, if you’re familiar with computers – early in the computer age you had to worry about connecting peripherals, had to worry about device drivers. With DOS or early Windows systems, I had to make sure I had the right driver for my printer, modem or any peripheral I wanted to talk to. The same problem exists in the automation industry,” and to “connect to a control piece hardware from another company, I need a device driver. In the late ‘90s, companies had to wrestle with maintaining a lot of device drivers for a lot of devices.” The OPC Foundation, OPC.org, worked with a lot of control companies in their business, and agreed on a standard to be the interface between automation products – software talking to hardware, software to talk to other software packages,” and so forth,” and it thus “became the interoperability standard in the industry.”
Kok recalled that Kepware “got involved with the OPC foundation early on,” and “at this point, we’re the most widely used OPC technology in the world, and are used and deployed much more than any other companies’ products. Kepware has really carved out its niche – this happened primarily because of OEM agreements, partnerships with most of the software vendors that wanted access to a lot of drivers could get them from Kepware.”
“Even though there is an interoperability standard, OPC, that any one can provide,” explained Kok, “one of the advantages Kepware developed early on is its large number of protocols, and became a one-stop shop for the automation industry.”
Toward an Automation Standard
Early on in the development of the human-machine interface, automation companies like Allen-Bradley, Rockwell Software, and “dozens of these companies – they wanted to supply an automation system,” and “in order to provide an entire solution they had to have all the connectivity to all the possible things they needed to tie to. They wrote all the device drivers to interface with all of these devices and all of these products. The same thing was replicated by all these different companies. There was no standard. That was in the early days: every company had to become an expert on how to communicate with every piece of equipment, and had teams of people dedicated just to performing this function. When OPC became popular in the 1990s time frame, that allowed us to step in with our device drivers and add in an OPC layer which could now be provided to every other product that could be applied to the industry standard. There could now be companies to focus specifically on driver technology and serve the entire marketplace for all of the companies to have other areas of expertise.” And so Kepware found its niche: “Companies did not have to be experts in device drivers any more. They could rely on others like Kepware to provide drivers.”
As things developed, Kok explained that “tool-kits for OPC became available, and companies would develop drivers and usually use an OPC tool kit o solve a particular problem, Within the automation industry, these were usually almost always configured by system integrators (SIs) – who would develop some technology, write a communications driver, and had something now they could potentially resell, which could be used with other products. But what happened – none of those SIs amassed a critical mass of communications to build a real market around it. The marketplace consisted of lots of drivers from lots of small mom-and-pop and some midsize communication companies that developed them to solve a particular problem rather than to be the most excellent driver in the industry. This became a bit of a problem for the industry, as a lot of drivers were now available but they were not always the best and not always tested with all the products out there. Just because you support a standard doesn’t mean that you supported it well. So there was a time where a lot of drivers existed, but they just weren’t the quality that people wanted. Over time we focused very much on developing a strong core set of drivers, put effort into making them the highest quality, attending all the interoperability meetings.” Kok noted that the OPC Foundation “will likely tell you that Kepware is the most reliable solution within the OPC foundation. I kind of like to talk about us as the poster child of the OPC Foundation! But they don’t like it when we say that.”
New Partner Programs
On April 7th, Kepware announced its creation of two new partner programs, the Vendor Managed Protocol (VMP) program and the Vendor Endorsed Protocol (VEP) program. These two new programs enable hardware vendors to leverage Kepware’s OPC and device communications architecture to deliver the very best device connectivity for their customers. With Vendor Managed Protocols, the hardware vendor will develop the plug-in driver to KEPServerEX, under the training, support and QA of Kepware. In the case of the Vendor Endorsed Protocols, the hardware vendor shares their unique protocol information and feature requirements with Kepware to ensure that Kepware’s engineering team develops the best solution for the vendor's needs. With both programs Kepware’s internal engineering and quality control teams will make sure the resulting vendor protocols have successfully completed its rigorous testing procedures before being included in the KEPServerEX server offering. After release, vendor protocols will be available to all OEMs and resellers of Kepware technology and will be made available to Kepware’s global customer base. Hardware vendors will also resell KEPServerEX with their plug-in, in an OEM-relationship with Kepware.
Referring to these newly announced partner programs, Kok recalled “a couple of things that happened, Again, companies have decided they want to specialize, so automation software companies want to focus on what they do best. Drivers are something nobody really wants to tackle. Since most of these software companies would have to develop drivers for competing hardware products, which is difficult to do, as it requires a relationship with a competitor – most of the software companies focusing on higher level software products have been looking for partnerships to solve their connectivity problem. Kepware’s model is to license drivers to companies in such a way they can make a decent profit on it, selling through their channels. A lot of software companies are eager to resell, and that has made Kepware very successful with all of the software companies. At this point we are the most widely OEMed driver product of any driver company. That success with the software companies has presented a really interesting opportunity for Kepware, which is what the press announcement was all about: so many software relationships are in place now, I can go to hardware companies and enable Kepware to be their path to software companies. A hardware company might entertain writing an OPC driver to their own hardware, but today they would rather rely on Kepware to write the driver, and would rather partner with Kepware since Kepware will deliver their driver to all the other software companies in the industry. We’re a powerful marketing arm for the hardware companies to gain visibility in the software market.
Kok explained the two programs. The first is the VMP or the Vendor Managed Protocol program, whereby hardware companies can develop the piece of protocol we put into our software; they can develop it for us, and give it to Kepware and we will quality test it and learn to support it, and give it to all of our partnerships.” He added that the “second one is for hardware companies that don’t want to do driver development but who still want to leverage the Kepware relationships, and will still work very closely with Kepware, sharing its latest designs with us, to make sure we are up to date with their latest protocols, and we will build the driver.” This is the VED or the Vendor Endorsed Program.
As Kok explained, “Both cases leverage all of our software relationships and partner relationships in the industry.” He added that “we’ve become the de facto standard in the industry – no other software product as widely OEMed as is our product in the automation industry.”
Noting the long list of partners on Kepware’s website, Kok added, “What’s interesting too is they fall into many categories now – HMI (human machine interface/operator control equipment from a computer screen) all the way to plant-wide analytics products to allow managers to ensure the production line meets production quality.” He added this ranges from “Oracle at the high-end to folks like Rockwell down at the control level.”
From Automation to Communications
Among Kepware’s partners is Hewlett Packard, which is in lots of businesses. Noted Kok, “One of the businesses they have is a solution for dynamic, smart cooling for datacenters” that uses “very sophisticated algorithms to control the cooling within large datacenters,” which “can save a great deal of money and operations costs.” And, “in order to do that, they need to monitor temperature and airflow and power use throughout the datacenter,” and to “dynamically reallocate resources” so if it “gets too warm, its sends more cooling,” and can “change that dynamically, which allows them to control it very accurately, instead of overcooling.” One result is this “makes significant savings in energy. We’re the communications that allows them to tie between the software that does the analysis and the physical equipment that does the actual control.”
And speaking of dynamic cooling, Kok noted that software automation is inherently eco-friendly, by improving efficiency and contributing in numerous ways to energy reductions. Kok observed, “Go back to the history of automation, and it kind of gets linked to the introduction of the PC. In the early days, the PC was put in to allow folks better monitoring of their systems, but they didn’t actually trust it. PCs were really human machine interfaces performing more monitoring functions that control functions. But over the years the technology became more reliable, was deployed further, and it got to the point where it became an integral part of control systems.”
For example, he noted that the “dynamic smart cooling process from HP is a PC running some analytics software that now has to talk to the real physical control equipment that is built into cabinets – which is where our communications software comes into play. In the past, people put in just enough communication to see and feel what is going on,” but are “now putting in archiving information for the long-term, information not needed for control today but for analysis tomorrow, or next year. To put in changes, monitor what’s going on now – so next year, you can the make next level of change implementation, an incremental and reiterative process. And at the foundation of this process, is just the need to be able to communicate with as much of the equipment that’s out there as possible. If you’re not monitoring it, there is no way you can control it.”
From Communications to Innovation
Looking at trends in the industry, Kok observed that from his perspective, he sees “the need for more and more communications, and to make it as easy as possible. Kepware doesn’t solve all the problems, it only solves the communications piece of the problem. HP does the analytics to do smart cooling that is really solving the energy problem.” But what brings it all together is the communications: “Communications with field equipment is what makes it possible – you can have all the analytics in the world, but if it is based on faulty data, you are going to have faulty results. You can’t make it up – it has to be based on real data!”
And speaking of real data, and how when combined with effective communications, it can have a huge impact, Kok told us about one driver from Kepware “that’s kind of interesting, and that allows you to monitor the weather from the weather service.” Kepware partnered with Weatherbug, and partnered with Weatherbug, which “has largest network of weather stations in North America. What’s interesting is they update in real-time every few seconds, as opposed to NOAA that typically has hourly updates, and report data back to Weatherbug headquarters,” where they have “lots of servers with all of the aggregated weather information as well as forecast information. We have written the communications over the Internet, to pull out the information you might want for some interesting decision-making capability. For instance, you could be controlling a large building – with heating, air-conditioning – and allocating based on real-time information such as temperatures rising or falling, and those could potentially allow you to make decisions in an automation environment.”
Kok added that this was “an interesting example of Kepware’s success in the industry. We, because of our predominance in the industry, were able to negotiate an exclusive agreement with Weatherbug – and are the only company that licenses their weather information for automation. We call that Weatherbug for Automation,” and it has a “lot of uses” -- such as for waste water treatment plants. “If you have lots of rain, you have lots of water coming in for treatment and you have to plan ahead.” As well, consider “power allocation. You have rainy days, hot days, cold days,” which thus “affect electric power use,” and the public utilities “have to gear up for weather demands, and can use our data to allow them to do that. So that’s a kind of a way that we introduced something new that is based on technology that was never available before, enabling things to happen in the industry that virtually could not be done before the Internet came and before a repository of data like Weatherbug’s was available/”
‘The IBM of the Driver Business’
Kok appreciates that Kepware is in “an area where we’re quite lucky right now . Within the automation industry, we’re actually quite new, and when someone says they are using Kepware drivers,” because of the fact that there are a “lot of mom and pop drivers out there, we certainly do have a reputation that makes us the most reliable choice. We’re kind of the IBM of the driver basis. You know the old saying, you never got shot for buying IBM!”
And while Kok said he didn’t know if that old expression “resonates now a days,” its underlying sentiment, the Kepware as a de facto standard when it comes to software automation, certainly does.
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