From Dumb Terminals to PCs and Back – ThinManager

| Jim Bischoff


The retro solution you’re looking for?

Are you old enough to remember “dumb terminals”? I am. At my first job in electrical distribution, each inside salesperson had a monochrome CRT terminal with an integrated keyboard at their desk, communicating back to the company mainframe computer through a serial cable. In fact, terminals were installed in pairs, so only one could be used at a time as they shared the same RS-232 cable! We even had a dedicated terminal named R.I.T.A. that communicated back to the manufacturer through a dedicated dial-up modem. Fancy, huh? Well, it was the 1980s. But the beauty of the dumb terminal was that it was dumb–plug-in power and a serial cable and you were up and running.

And we have come a long way since then! Or have we? Read on…

PanelViewAs the years and technology moved forward, we saw industrial versions of dumb terminals make their way to the manufacturing floor, except mainframe computers were replaced with PLC ASCII / Basic modules and custom programming. Technology moved us forward to dedicated (closed) Human Machine Interface devices that were industrially hardened and designed specifically for communicating to Programmable Logic Controllers. CRTs moved to flat screens, and the flat-screen HMI has been a staple of the manufacturing floor for the last 20 years or so. They are affordable and dependable. But they are also typically closed systems, meaning that you can’t run mainstream applications on them. As technology developed there became a need for Industrial Personal Computers on the plant floor to support Vision Systems, Part Tracking Databases, Test Systems, etc. Higher-level integration to MES and MRP systems also require the need for open Operating Systems, like Windows or Linux. Some tried using standard office-grade (white box) PCs, but they were not designed for the heat, moisture, and vibration that is seen on the manufacturing floor. So Industrial PCs became more prevalent and were designed to better handle these harsh environments. Better – but not perfect. Fans draw in dirt and oil, and hard drives fail with temperature swings or vibration.

VersaView 5400 Industrial ComputersToday’s modern Industrial PC can be ordered in a fan-less design, with a solid-state hard drive that eliminates the issue of rotating media. They last longer than ever and are often used in the application examples above. They can be a great choice for your application. But – there might be a better one…

VersaView 5400 Industrial Computers. Bulletin 6200 VersaView® 5400 industrial computers feature an open architecture, which provides greater application flexibility. 

Have you ever had one of those “I could have had a V8” moments of realization?  I have. It was after the recent Rockwell Automation acquisition of ACP ThinManager® that really got me thinking about thin clients, and the value they could provide. We offer rugged PCs, and they can survive the harshest environments. But they still need to be administered. Open operating systems (Windows) means regular updates of virus software, operating system patches, re-boots, and relatively long periods of recovery in the event of a failure. Most automation software revisions happen less frequently than OS patches, service packs, and new OS versions. This can cause incompatibility, downtime, and lost production. Now imagine a manufacturing line or even a whole plant full of PCs to administer, and we have a real IT/OT challenge between keeping the plant running as well as keeping the infrastructure secure. Thin clients address this.

They provide a similar function to the dumb terminal I used in the ’80s. They are typically a zero-admin box that provides visibility and operator input to the process. And they are secure! Thin clients have been around for a while. So why the delayed aha moment? I’ve always looked at thin clients like a bit of black magic. Implementing thin clients is very IT-centric. Terminal Services, now Remote Desktop Services, requires Windows Server knowledge to set up. But the bigger issue is managing the clients. It always made sense to me that IT owns the server and manages that (virtualization, patches, service packs, virus updates, etc.) but Operations (OT) needs to be able to manage the clients and their content on the plant floor. That is where ThinManager comes in. ThinManager allows OT to deliver content to the right location to the right people in a secure environment. Rockwell Automation thin client devices are “ThinManager Aware” and are automatically managed by ThinManager at power-up, making terminal replacement simple. ThinManager also supports mobility with Relevance® – the only location-based mobile management platform that allows applications and content to be securely delivered to specific locations within your facility and nowhere else.

Typical ThinManager Architecture

Typical ThinManager Architecture

ThinManager is a Game Changer

It has given me that aha moment where I think users can finally realize the value of thin clients on the manufacturing floor. Are thin clients and ThinManager right for you?

Can you answer “Yes” to any of these questions?

  • Have you thought about using thin clients on the plant floor?
  • Do you have issues with PCs failing on the plant floor?
  • Do you have a mobility initiative?
  • Is your plant moving to virtualization?

If you answered “Yes” to any of these, Horizon would like to help you on your thin client journey. Please contact a Horizon Solutions Specialist for more information.

Useful link: VersaView 5200 ThinManager Thin Clients