The interest around the ExxonMobil initiative to modernize their automation systems and their selection of Lockheed Martin to lead this initiative has generated considerable interest and discussion within automation vendors and the industry at large. Now that vendors have had the time to digest the impact of the proposal, to take a standards based approach across all levels of an automation system, and, in particular, to adopt a standard such as VPX, driven by the FACE initiatives in aerospace, a variety of reactions are appearing in the media.

Vendor responses have varied from embracing the concept to outright skepticism that the idea to mix and match elements from different vendors in a shelf could ever become a reality. Much of this is driven by the market position of any given vendor and what they believe they have to win or lose through the evolution of this initiative.

Yet, history has important lessons for the skeptics. The Enterprise computing industry of the 20th century was rooted in proprietary closed systems where a customer was predominantly owned by a single manufacturer. Today, it is very much a horizontal, layered industry where companies compete at their specific layers, and components of the solution can easily be mixed and matched depending customer preference and perceived value. Think plug and play with disk drives, network cards, operating systems and applications of all kinds. Similarly, the telecom industry has gone through its own evolution from completely proprietary systems to an open environment, which encompasses equipment that enables vendor mixing and matching within a shelf. The current initiatives around NFV promise even greater changes.

In both cases, the results have been the same; an explosion of innovation with new applications and a competitive environment that has enabled broad adoption at effective price points. Certainly, the vendor landscapes are dramatically different, some older vendors survive and adapt, others fade away, but new players emerge as they bring a fresh approach. Did these evolutions happen overnight?

No, they took years to evolve, sometimes with dead-ends (does anyone remember token-ring as an alternative to Ethernet?) but the long-term results were the same.

In some ways the industrial automation industry is already on this journey. The increasing adoption of industry standards servers and systems to run automation systems, whether they by small deployments, or in place of large DCS implementations, is one example. Innovative products exist in the space to provide the redundancy and continuous availability with no data loss that is the cornerstone of efficient automation implementations. And applications run very effectively on industry standard operating systems, many in a virtualized environment.

ExxonMobil has taken the first step to revolutionizing the automation industry. This is a journey that will take time and the layer 3 and above layers of an overall solution are already well down that path. It will be exciting to see how the automation industry evolves as it embarks on changes that have re-shaped other industries.