• By Bill Lydon
  • InTech
Breaking closed architecture bonds
The Open Process Automation Forum

By Bill Lydon

The Open Process Automation™ Forum (OPAF), launched in November 2016, is defining a standards-based, open, secure, multivendor, interoperable control architecture to satisfy the technical and business requirements of process industries. A major driver for this effort has been the widespread call for accelerating the modernization of automation technology, along with an ecosystem of suppliers that can leverage the latest technology in ways analogous to the evolution of the computer, telecommunications, consumer electronics, military defense, and avionics industries.

OPAF is a forum of The Open Group, which is a consensus-based standard group of end users, suppliers, system integrators, standards organizations, and academia with the mission to develop the Open Process Automation Standard (O-PAS). Don Bartusiak, ExxonMobil Research and Engineering, chief engineer, process control, and co-chairman of The Open Group Open Process Automation Forum project, has framed the issues by asking three thought-provoking questions:

  • Would you accept your Verizon cell phone if it could not talk to a phone with AT&T, Sprint, Vodafone, or another carrier?
  • Would you accept having to rewrite all your Word documents, spreadsheets, and presentations if you switched your home computer from a Dell to an HP?
  • Would you accept that you must have a dedicated router from your Dell PC, a second router for your Apple computer, a third router for your Samsung phone, and a fourth router for your iPhone?

His conclusion is that this is the state of process automation control systems today. Control systems are so tightly coupled functionally that end users cannot integrate best-in-class solutions. They are trapped by the current closed architectures with highly gated vendor-managed partner ecosystems.


The root of the OPAF initiative was a corporate project at ExxonMobil to understand how the company would compete in the future, recognizing the significant shifts in technology as enablers for new competitors worldwide. This led the company to an understanding that open interoperable process automation systems would be required to compete.

User survey

The problem of replacing legacy systems is prevalent throughout the industry and reflected in the results of a Frost & Sullivan survey. It asked distributed control system (DCS) users: "What are the top five issues with current distributed control system architectures?" The biggest issues were:

  • The difficulties associated with replacing a DCS are significantly higher than those associated with replacing or upgrading other computer-based systems (68 percent agreed).
  • The cybersecurity models for currently available DCSs will be difficult to adapt to future cloud-based services or managed cybersecurity services (61 percent agreed).
  • The pace of innovation for DCSs is typically slow compared to other information technology (IT) systems (61 percent agreed).
  • DCSs at my facility/organization require replacement in large part due to system obsolescence (inability to integrate with newer equipment or systems) (54 percent agreed).
  • DCS compatibility between generations is poor (even if the supplier stays the same) (53 percent agreed).

Note: The results are based on 53 survey completions and 13 interviews.

Birth of OPAF

ExxonMobil approached The Open Group to initiate a new open standards activity for the process control industry. From March to September 2016, ExxonMobil and The Open Group staff worked to build a "coalition of the willing" comprising end users throughout industries using process control and their key suppliers. During this time, the organizations built interest and identified potential participants via public outreach meetings, webcasts, and face-to-face conversations. As the incubation work proceeded, it became clear that there was interest from at least seven different industry sectors that use similar systems from the same community of suppliers in their process manufacturing environments. These sectors included food and beverage, mining and metals, oil and gas, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, pulp and paper, and utilities.

The Open Group described, through its blog, a few things that quickly became very clear during the first member meeting:

  • There are common pain points spanning multiple sectors (such as aging control systems and the need for more rapid technology insertion), which the proposed standards effort can address to the benefit of customers.
  • There are similar pain points shared by suppliers in current business models.
  • The supplier community is eager to work collaboratively on an open standard for process control.
  • The participants had a common understanding that a "win-win" outcome, benefiting end users and suppliers, is essential. The members of the forum are keen to deliver this.

Adjacent industry example

At the 2016 ARC Orlando Forum, Dennis Stevens of Lockheed Martin, and Future Airborne Computing Environment (FACE™) (part of The Open Group) consortium business working group (BWG) chairman, described how standards have improved avionics and other critical military applications. He shared how the FACE software standard coupled with the OpenVPX hardware standard have spawned a multivendor interoperable ecosystem that has lowered cost, shortened project execution time, and improved functionality.

These are not ordinary products. They have to meet stringent specifications enabled in many ways by rugged electronic components developed for consumer products requiring higher durability and higher computing power, including cell phones and personal fitness devices.

OpenVPX in avionics enables multivendor systems.

ExxonMobil proof of concept

ExxonMobil engaged Lockheed Martin to build a prototype process control system based on standard hardware and software. Don Bartusiak, co-chairman of The Open Group OPAF and ExxonMobil Research and Engineering, chief engineer, process control, commented on the prototype progress: "Currently a proof-of-concept prototype by Lockheed Martin is in their facilities in Owego, N.Y., and is operational. There are two variants of the proof of concept. One runs against a simulated plant with emulated instruments. The other runs against a real, college lab type process with water tanks in series, sensors, control valves, and pumps. We are proceeding directly to the design of the prototype system for initial field trials on the basis of The Open Process Automation Standards in progress."


During the comprehensive first meeting, the members discussed the scope of the standards effort, while also creating the forum organization, and identified leadership roles for the forum and for specific work groups. The top Open Group Open Process Automation Forum leadership is:

  • Director: Ed Harrington, The Open Group
  • Co-chair: Donald Bartusiak, ExxonMobil Research and Engineering, chief engineer, process control
  • Co-chair: Trevor Cusworth, Schneider Electric, VP, global account executive - ExxonMobil

This initiative has come a long way in a short time. Jim Hietala, vice president, business development and security for The Open Group, manages the business team, security and risk management programs, and standards activities. He characterizes the progress: "The Open Group is happy with the development of the Open Process Automation Forum, which now has 109 members including most of the major control systems suppliers, and significant end user representation from oil and gas, chemicals, pulp and paper, pharmaceuticals, and mining and metals. We are also pleased with the pace of progress in the forum, which started in November 2016, and now has technical, business, standards body interface, and enterprise architecture work groups; numerous subgroups, including conformance; and numerous technical subcommittees all formed, meeting regularly, and making rapid progress."

Ed Harrington, The Open Group OPAF director, commented on his role as the primary interface between the members of the forum and The Open Group. His roles include meeting organization and facilitation, as well as ensuring that The Open Group processes are followed, and all legal and vendor- and technology-neutrality guidelines are enforced.

The business working group is very active, noted Harrington, "The first formal deliverable of the forum is the Open Process Automation Business Guide, due for publication in January 2018. The Business Guide is targeted at mid- and senior-level management in both the supplier and user communities that make up the process automation ecosystem. The value propositions are key for both the end user and supplier communities. It takes a business-as opposed to technical-perspective to describe the vision, mission, and scope of the forum's effort. The guide has seven business use cases from the oil and gas, petrochemical, specialty chemical, pulp and paper, mining and metals, and biopharmaceutical vertical industries. It includes a description of the future-state process automation ecosystem and the business approach used to achieve that. Later in the year, the forum will publish a "snapshot" of the first version of the technical standard. This document will give industry participants a strong indication of where the forum is heading from a formal technical standard perspective. This will allow industry participants not directly involved with the forum's standard development process to review and comment on its direction."

Source: The Open Group

Business Guide

The Business Guide is a business reference for senior stakeholder leadership. It describes the vision, mission, and scope of the OPAF and details several vertical industry use cases. It also describes the envisioned future ecosystem and the approach to reaching that future through the development of a "standard of standards." The co-chairmen working on the guide are Darren Blue, Cloud Platforms, Health, and Silicon Photonics Groups senior controller at Intel Corporation, and Eugene Tung, West Point site IT lead\, Merck Sharp & Dohme.

Technical working groups

Hietala and Harrington say the technical working groups are all working in parallel to facilitate development of the standard. Harrington commented, "The technical working group subcommittees are working diligently toward their aspects of standardization." Asked if these groups are working on high-level requirements at this point, Harrington responded that they are "a little bit beyond that with the business working group having come up with a couple of hundred identified requirements to the point that the technical people have a fairly detailed technical architecture."

"The plan is, and we are really pushing this in the second quarter of 2018, to publish publicly what we call in The Open Group a snapshot of where we're heading as far as the specifics of the standards are concerned. Remember what we are trying to do here, and why we are able to move it so quickly; we are not trying to invent new standards if at all possible. We may find some white spaces we are going to have to fill in, but for the most part we want to take existing standards and integrate and utilize them on a holistic basis. We are planning to publish a snapshot, then target releasing a version of the standard six months later," he said.

Jim Hietala emphasized, "It is not a serial process, not just doing the business guide and then shifting to the technology. Those things are going on in parallel. Along with the enterprise architecture working group, a conformance subcommittee has been spun up and started to meet around developing a conformance program that will be available in close proximity to when the standard comes out."

Harrington described The Open Group process where any member organizations of the group are free to participate to whatever degree they feel appropriate with as many people as they are willing to commit. "However, when it comes down to arriving at consensus, that is determined by the members of The Open Group Forum with each organization having one vote."

I asked if independent labs will be used for the conformance testing. Hietala responded, "that is all still to be determined." He said there is "a lot of blocking and tackling about what's the right policy." Hietala explained how the UNIX program, which The Open Group administers, works-vendors run a conformance test and submit results, providing a self-certification to the standards. "The goal is having products in the market that are certified to work conformant with a standard, so customers can identify a trademark and say they want a product that conforms to that standard, delivering interoperability when it is installed."

I asked about safety. Harrington replied that "safety system standards, at least for this first go around, are off the table; it is not part of what we are standardizing." Bartusiak explained, "Given the requirements of the ISA-84 and IEC 61151 standards that there shall be separate and independent combinations of sensors, logic solvers, and final elements to achieve required safety integrity levels, the Open Process Automation Forum decided that safety instrumented systems were outside of its scope."

Sensors and controllers

I asked if the standard intended to deal with the controller and sensors. Harrington explained, "We are dealing within the controller. As a matter of fact, this includes the wire to the end devices. One of the big things the Exxon Mobils, the Shells, and other organizations throughout the world are complaining about is when upgrading systems, they end up having to move wires, which is a major cost. There is a subcommittee within the technical working group headed up by Alex Johnson, system architect - Next Generation Systems of Process Automation at Schneider Electric, looking at the physical aspects."

Control and sensor network standards?

I asked if the group intends to create a new industrial automation protocol, and Harrington clarified, "The OPAF Connectivity Framework will not be a new protocol. It will reference one or more existing standards. The technical working group is currently evaluating OPC UA to determine if it meets or exceeds the OPAF requirements for the Connectivity Framework."

Standards groups engagement

Because the intent is to leverage existing standards, I asked how OPAF will determine which standards to include in the new specification. Harrington described the process, "Standards to be adopted are being driven by the technical working groups, and then the standards body interface working group will develop the relationship and be responsible for the relationship between the other standards bodies. At this point in time there have been no specific standards that have been positively set in stone."

Hietala commented, "There has been a little bit of a chicken and egg in terms of The Open Group staff to put these relationships in place-needing to be driven by the standards liaison working group telling us which organizations make sense."

Harrington describe the process of using technical committee members, "we are relying on the expertise of the members of the forum who happen to be participating in the standards efforts." The technical working group committees define for the standards body interface working group the standards they would like to use as part of The Open Process Automation Standard. Harrington described the point of contact with other standards organizations, "Most times we work on a shared liaison basis where we will have an elected member of our forum represent what it is we are trying to do to the standards organization we are trying to deal with." Typically, this is a formal relationship with a memorandum of understanding. He noted the standards body interface working group leads are from Schneider and Siemens, based on the thought that the vendors are much more knowledgeable on the details of standards than users.

OPC Foundation

The OPC Foundation is currently the only standards organization outside of The Open Group that is a member of OPAF. Thomas Burke, OPC Foundation president, commented on the relationship, "OPC Foundation joined The Open Group in 2017 specifically to get engaged with the very exciting initiative called The Open Process Automation Forum. OPC Foundation recognizes the positive influence of the end-user community and the suppliers collaborating together in The Open Process Automation Forum. This initiative will clearly define the future of process automation and tie together all of the legacy systems with the systems of tomorrow. Great efforts are being made to make sure that systems are being architected that are truly open and will have timeless durability. It's very important to leverage the right technology for the right business cases when you are developing truly open hardware and software systems for the future. OPC UA is deliberately architected for complete protocol independence, platform independence, operating system independence, and vendor neutrality. We see this as the key infrastructure that the open process automation should be able to leverage easily to tie together the systems of the past with the systems of the future."

System integrators

Discussing system integrators, Harrington said, "We have a liaison with CSIA, and an OPAF member from Lockheed Martin is our liaison with them." Discussing the relationship with Jose M. Rivera, CEO, Control System Integrators Association (CSIA), he commented, "The vision for the future of process control systems by OPAF is based on the concept of openness. This translates into significant changes in the business models of the various stakeholders, including independent system integrators. Through a formal relationship, CSIA and OPAF have been collaborating, specifically on the development of a business guide document. A CSIA task force has shared its views to ensure that the roles and responsibilities of control system integrators, a key part of the automation business ecosystem, are adequately represented. Through this collaboration, CSIA has made its members aware and excited about the OPAF initiative." CSIA, founded in 1994, is a not-for-profit, global trade association that advances the industry of control system integration. It has more than 500 member companies in 27 countries.

What is at stake?

The industrial automation industry has dramatically lagged in the adoption of technology. A major reason for this has been closed ecosystems. Many vendors have partner programs that are promoted as "open," but they are highly gated, bureaucratically controlled, and closed systems for noncompetitive offerings. As in the computer, telecommunications, and consumer electronics industries, this closed approach is not sustainable. The dramatic technological changes, the rise of open systems in the computer industry, and the increasing implementations of Internet of Things advancements-with greater reliability, performance, and cost efficiency-is changing the landscape of system components.

Users should absolutely think about what they need to be competitive in their industries in the long term on the global stage. The intent of developing this new open process control architecture standard is to create an alternative.

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About The Authors

Bill Lydon is an InTech contributing editor with more than 25 years of industry experience. He regularly provides news reports, observations, and insights here and on Automation.com