Software as a service

With the degree of change on some software platforms, paying huge dough for a product you will use sparingly really is pretty outrageous, making Internet access not just an option, but a necessity.

Software ServicesBy Jeremy Pollard, CET, Columnist

IT’S EVERYWHERE. The Internet enables our insatiable appetite for information and connectivity. WiFi is everywhere, mobility is advancing, 3G cell networks can stream video, and, as Gigabit Ethernet and IP V2 push into the mainstream, we have options and opportunities galore.

A good friend of mine called and asked me if I knew anyone who had an old Rockwell Software 6200 series software PLC-2 license. Aside from the legalities of someone giving someone else a license to use their software, PLC-2 and 6200 series software is just a figment of most imaginations these days. This stuff is old—almost as old as the industry itself.

I asked him why, expecting to hear about a training issue, upgrade path problem, or a machine being put into mothballs. It was none of the above. My friend’s customer was quoted $14,000 by Rockwell for an extra license.

It seems they want to have a second license on a second laptop because the customer needed both of them running at the same time a few times a year. Right, only a few times a year. I shook my head sadly.

I remembered a conversation I had with an Allen-Bradley executive some time ago. His idea was to have a core cost for the product, and an incremental cost for each feature. It apparently didn’t fly, but reminded me of a concept I always have thought was feasible—software as a service. As a user, you’d sign up for a year’s use, and you’d access the software whenever you needed it over whatever medium you needed.

Pay for the service as you need it. In the case of my friend’s customer, he could use the software at the same time, but pay for it only when he needs it.

This is how I think it could work. With the Internet, you have a device that you can designate as the automation “gateway,” such as a maintenance laptop. It also could be a PDA, a cell phone, tablet PC, or a Linux box.

When you discover you need access to, for instance, a PLC right now, then you have the software installed on your gateway, while the run-time license(s) is registered on a server somewhere. When you fire up the designated gateway, it goes to the Internet, validates your laptop and company as a registered user, and allows the software to run.

An optional method is similar to SecureID authentication, by which a login code varies in almost-real time. You could have the software on a laptop in the factory, or onsite during a startup. You log into the application server at your vendor’s site with your PDA. You request a temporary runtime license by entering the generated code from the laptop, and the PDA displays the license info to allow you to run the software in full mode.

The run-time protection that typically is resident on each gateway would not be necessary.

This level of access control could be applied to a variety of software solutions that we employ during our week-to-week activities. We could call it pay-as-you-go software.

HMI software really needs to have constant connectivity to the process, but PLC programming software or motion controller development software does not. In fact, an HMI development software doesn’t have to be “all-time” licensed.

And, with the degree of change on some software platforms, paying huge dough for a product you’ll use only sparingly really is pretty outrageous.

Industrial software always has been expensive to buy, implement, and maintain. There are many reasons for this, including that a company like Wonderware might have $40 million in annual sales, but has huge support costs, and adding new functionality takes a lot of effort.

However, this could be a new potential revenue stream for vendors and a better managed cost for industrial OEMs and their customers. It wouldn’t matter which product or hardware you were trying to support. As long as you’re a registered user, you can use any of the software products from the vendor, and pay for the usage.

A fee structure might include occurrence charges, and time of use charges as well. For certain pieces of software, the initial purchase cost is a killer—and it’s a capital cost as well. Use or lease charges can be expensed, which is better for the bottom line, too.

Makes sense to me. After all, Internet access no longer is just an option, it’s a necessity.

With the degree of change on some software platforms, paying huge dough for a product you will use sparingly really is pretty outrageous.


  About the Author
Jeremy Pollard, CETJeremy Pollard, CET, has been writing about technology and software issues for many years. Publisher of The Software User Online, he has been involved in control system programming and training for more than 20 years. He’ll be pleased to hear from you, so e--mail him at jpollard@tsuonline.com.
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