Workload Consolidation: Unlocking Efficiency and Innovation in Industrial Systems

By Brandon Lewis, Embedded Technology Industry Analyst

Success in the industrial sector requires a relentless focus on efficiency. In recent years, this pressure has brought increased attention to workload consolidation, which combines what were once multiple discrete functions into a single industrial computer. Not only does this cut costs, but it also unlocks technical capabilities that can improve performance, security, and innovation.

The cost benefits alone present a compelling argument. Consolidating workloads onto a single platform significantly reduces the number of systems required, leading to substantial CAPEX savings on hardware and associated infrastructure. Infrastructure management, maintenance, and resource consumption can realize bigger savings, with operational expenditures (OPEX) falling precipitously under a workload consolidation paradigm.

Now, partnerships are emerging around workload consolidation technology stacks based on off-the-shelf hardware and software solutions that empower industrial users to realize those efficiencies. For instance, leading embedded software supplier TenAsys® is pairing its real-time INtime® software platform with multicore Intel® processor-based industrial compute and networking hardware from Kontron to streamline the path to workload consolidated system designs.

“Our primary goal is a lower total cost of ownership (TCO),” states Kim Hartman, VP of Marketing at TenAsys®. “From day one we’ve partnered with Intel® to take advantage of the inherent efficiencies of general-purpose hardware,” which tends to be less costly than specialized systems such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs).

But that is not to say today’s “general-purpose hardware” is rudimentary. Ricky Watts, Senior Director of Industrial Solutions for the Federal and Industrial Business at Intel, explains that his company has exposed “a very rich set of tools and capabilities at the platform level and a door within that environment through virtualization.”

Extending Workload Consolidation’s Cost Savings Beyond the System

The “door” Watts refers to means the advantages of workload consolidated systems can be extended beyond a local system and across the entire infrastructure. At the network level, this is represented by a migration from the slew of proprietary communications protocols and interfaces one finds in industrial environments today to tomorrow’s converged networks based on standard Ethernet.

“The entire sector is migrating to shared, open standards,” explains Hartman. “That’s why our INtime® real-time platform incorporates an Ethernet Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN) implementation.” The combined technology stack leverages Intel® Time Coordinated Computing (Intel® TCC) to synchronize and send real-time traffic over standard Ethernet networks while ensuring critical data packets are delivered with minimal delay and jitter.

[Note: Read “Time-Sensitive Networking: The Foundation of Real-Time Network Convergence” and “Abstracting Configuration Complexity of Time-Sensitive Networking to Accelerate Mass Adoption”.]

While the TSN network standards support a variety of protocols and quality of service (QoS), the fact that this type of network interoperability can be realized using standard Industrial Ethernet means that the convergence and homogenization of physical layer connectivity will drive down costs even further.

Sharing the Wire While Meeting SLAs

Workload consolidation will also lead to significant performance improvements. Different functions running on a consolidated system can utilize shared platform resources for tighter coupling, leading to lower latency and communication overhead. This is particularly advantageous compared to disaggregated implementations where workloads are distributed across separate physical systems and networks. Redundant enterprise and control network implementations suffer from inefficiencies and performance bottlenecks that are addressed through workload consolidation.

At the same time, resources can be reserved for specific workloads in a consolidated system to guarantee consistent performance and meet stringent Service Level Agreements (SLAs). A technique known as “CPU pinning,” for instance, dedicates a processor core to a single task, ensuring uninterrupted performance.

“We can pin CPUs, cores, or threads to certain workloads to ensure a given workload uses a specific core and nothing else touches that core,” says Watts. “Then we have technologies such as TSN that allow us to further the service assurance that applications can use to ensure they meet their SLAs.”

The capabilities of the latest Intel® Atom™ and Core™ processors are taking these concepts to the next level. For instance, Intel® Core™ processors feature a hybrid architecture with a mix of performance- and efficiency-optimized cores. Cores can be assigned according to workload requirements, ensuring critical tasks receive the necessary processing power while less demanding workloads operate efficiently without compromising overall system performance.

Even more exciting possibilities lie ahead. “Throughout our long partnership with Intel, we’ve enjoyed early access to next-generation technology,” notes Hartman. “We continue to be on the forefront of driving forward workload consolidation initiatives on PC platforms and foresee ongoing opportunities with complimentary workload areas like AI.”

Safety and Security Coupled with Rapid Innovation

In industrial systems, safety and security are paramount. To address these concerns, TenAsys solutions isolate workloads in hardware partitions, preventing interference between tasks. This ensures that, even in a consolidated environment, each function operates independently, safeguarding the system’s integrity and limiting the impact of potential security breaches.

This concept can be extended through virtualization, which enables multiple operating systems to run on the same hardware. The approach facilitates the consolidation of workloads with diverse operating systems, such as a real-time operating system (RTOS), Linux, and Windows.

Plus, by enabling flexible combinations of workloads in virtualized environments, developers can implement modern, cloud-native development workflows. This streamlines the development process, leading to faster engineering cycles and enabling rapid innovation for robust, secure, and high-performance industrial systems.

Embracing the Future of Industrial Efficiency

Workload consolidation presents a compelling value proposition for the future. By offering significant cost savings, enhanced performance, and improved safety and security, this technology paves the way for more efficient and reliable operations across various industries.

“At the end of the day, it’s very clear that technologists do technology and manufacturers build,” Watts says. “Manufacturers want to modernize, but they want to do it with the people they trust so they can get comfortable building a value proposition around these open and integrated systems where they can reduce costs and plug-and-play everything from containers to AI without additional risk.”

As TenAsys and Intel continue to collaborate and innovate in this domain, we can expect even more advancements that unlock the vast potential of workload consolidation and shape the industrial automation systems of tomorrow.

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