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ECS Engineering, Consulting & Solutions in Neumarkt, Bavaria, has been a successful IT consulting and solutions provider in the industry for many years. One of its specialties is integration solutions that enable customers to derive additional benefits from their PLM and ERP software. Data from such systems should be able to be used for higher productivity and more effectiveness in manufacturing planning and production, order processing and logistics, but also in product usage and product-based services of the Internet of Things (IoT). One of the main products for this was the company’s own modular platform eCenter.

For some time now, ECS has been expanding its offering: cloud-based services that function and communicate flexibly with each other and with other software systems. Over the last few years, the service provider has developed into a recognized specialist in container technology and web-based services in its own labs and with practical projects. Enrico Hahn, Director of ECS Solutions, explains in a detailed interview why ECS – like many of its customers – is increasingly relying on composable software and what is changing in the industry and its IT landscape as a result of the current technological leap.

Ulrich Sendler: Mr. Hahn, what prompted ECS to put its services on a new footing?

Enrico Hahn: Customers increasingly asked us how they could also use the familiar advantages of cloud and pay per use with their IT in industry. The need for individual solutions that can be implemented at very short notice also grew significantly. This called for new ways and means, because classic standard software was only of very limited use for this. Around the same time, in the early tens, the standardization of container technology had reached a decisive level of maturity. Kubernetes was donated as open source by Google to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation in 2013 and is now supported by all platforms. We started to move our software development to containers, based on Docker and Kubernetes.

Unlocking the benefits of the cloud for customers

Ulrich Sendler: What specific benefits do your customers want to achieve in the cloud?

Enrico Hahn: Very important are the operational concepts possible in the cloud. Instead of having to constantly maintain certain computing and storage capacities via their own large server or a data center, the customer is billed exactly for the time during which they use a service. This is a great advantage from the point of view of costs, but also with regard to sustainability and the currently so central issue of energy consumption. And it is actually independent of the environment in which the service ultimately runs, whether in the public, private or edge cloud, or on a server.

A second point is at least as important for our customers: A container service, based on common standards, running on any platform, is not only decoupled during runtime. It can also be developed, tested and deployed quickly and completely independently of other software installations. A classic adaptation of a monolithic system can hardly keep up with the speed possible in this way. We can now offer such a service if, for example, it is needed quickly and perhaps only for a limited time as part of a specific project. Or if the customer needs it as a result of a joint venture. We calculate weeks or a few months for this with cloud technology. Classically, that doesn’t work out to less than a year. And then, according to the old methods, there is also a certain amount of uncertainty in the planning, because it is not really possible to foresee what effort may arise in the future from the close connection with a standard software, for example because of updates.

Enrico Hahn, Director ECS Solutions, sees a strong development towards Composable Software. ECS has adapted to this at an early stage. (Photo ECS)

Ulrich Sendler: What role does the scalability of cloud services play for the customer?

Enrico Hahn: A very big one. That is another reason why a web service only provides exactly the resources that are needed at any given moment. Container services can scale independently and automatically because they carry all the data and libraries required at runtime in their capsule. For example, parameters can be set so that an instance of a service component can handle up to 200 sessions in parallel and has 8 gigabytes of RAM available for this. As soon as one of the values is reached, a second instance automatically starts up.

eCenter as container services

Ulrich Sendler: What was ECS’ path to cloud technology like? And what are the concrete benefits of container technology?

Enrico Hahn: We first broke down our modular platform eCenter into services. The platform was already programmed in Java and only needed a suitable runtime environment, regardless of the hardware. But it was a monolithic system, the host for all the components and modules we developed. So you had to start an eCenter system to use any of the modules. We have now rebuilt all these modules as container services. This has several advantages.

The container is independent of the rest of the IT. For example, updates do not have to be taken into account on the other side. Downtimes are reduced to a possible minimum. The second advantage is that the container can be used for different purposes. Let’s take the comparison of part structures as an example. We have built a service that pulls corresponding data from completely different systems. But these are also interchangeable. You no longer program the comparison of a structure in Teamcenter with one in SAP. You program a service for the comparison of part structure data. The systems involved are selected in the specific case. And rules are used to define what is to be compared and for what purpose. Another advantage is the higher flexibility. If a new task arises, what should be done with the structural data in the direction of analysis, visualization or calculation, then this is simply an additional service that uses other services. You can always focus on the software functionality you are dealing with, everything else is unaffected.

Ulrich Sendler: That sounds like simplification above all. What are the hooks in the new technology?

Enrico Hahn: Hooks is not the right word. If you want to have this new kind of service, you also have to change your software development. This applies to us as a service provider as well as to our industrial customers. Take monitoring, for example: With classic software, the customer has selected and built up an infrastructure, and for IT monitoring he has implemented appropriate software. But even if he continues to use the same software, something changes as a result of the changeover, because this software also relies on certain standards with regard to the containers at runtime. So, already during the development of the container, it has to be considered which standards it should serve for monitoring. Here, the development effort will be somewhat greater, but this is unique. In return, it will be noticeably easier in the long term during operation. This applies to the entire process of development, testing, deployment and operation: Many things become easier and can be automated, but – at least in the initial phase – it also requires a high level of concentration in order to take all the necessary changes into account.

Ulrich Sendler: In the cloud, the ecosystem has a high priority. Which partners does ECS rely on?

Enrico Hahn: From the very beginning, we have primarily relied on open standards and use appropriate tools from the field of open software. For example, we have implemented a number of customer projects with the Cloud Foundry framework, which in turn uses the major cloud platforms. Of course, we use the platform favored by the customer in each case, often AWS and Microsoft Azure, but sometimes also Google. We are now migrating a larger implementation with a customer to OpenShift from IBM/Red Hat, because he expects additional improvements in the portability of the Kubernetes clusters. Also in our toolbox is Springboot from Apache. This is a framework for automated Java app development and packaging. It facilitates the integration of one container solution with others.

There is another collaboration with integration platform provider SnapLogic. It is a low-code/no-code integration platform used to automate data flows, data exchange and other data handling scenarios between applications. For SnapLogic, ECS is today the implementation partner for corresponding integrations in the environment of PLM, for example with Teamcenter or Windchill.

Through our long-standing partnership with Siemens, we also use their low-code/no-code tool Mendix for the development of interactions with applications. We have our own team of certified Mendix developers for this purpose. After all, it’s a completely different way of developing software than in classic software development. MindSphere is also likely to prove very important, as the Siemens cloud platform has also been developed as a cloud-native service from the very beginning.

With this the list of tools and partners is not complete and is always subject to change.

In a nutshell: Input and data management by humans, systems and devices, connectivity through services via APIs, interaction between IT and IoT, finally apps as needed for the various applications. If the circle is then closed back to the input sources, the integration has worked. (Graphic ECS)

Ulrich Sendler: You spoke about the growing demand for individual solutions and the opportunities that open systems open up for this. Can you give us a concrete example?

Enrico Hahn: One of our customers is Siemens Energy. They developed their own program for the parameterized calculation and design of compressor systems, such as those used in pipeline projects. This program is able to generate and visualize a 3D model from parameters and calculation data. Among other things, it is also possible to derive from the calculations which components with which weight are to be considered, for example, for the design of a crane for installation. We are now containerizing this application and breaking it down into individual services that can then be used in a wide variety of areas within the company. No one needs to have a special application installed for this.

Flexibility that customers need

Ulrich Sendler: Has the switch to Web-based services changed anything in ECS’s service business?

Enrico Hahn: One change is the enormous flexibility with which we can now respond to customer requests. Almost in every case where it is initially a matter of adapting a standard software, we can now offer a container service as an alternative, which is usually chosen. For the last five years, we have rebuilt all of our own software as containers. It is now the standard for us. We are container-ready, so to speak. And I would estimate about 60 percent of our customer projects are now running with this technology.

Then it changes our ability to actively contribute to our customers’ IoT projects. The use of data – for example, also from product operation or maintenance – has become much easier.

And a new field of activity has been added: We can now help our customers if they want to switch to cloud technology or another tool for this themselves. As consultants and also operationally in the migration itself. From development to deployment.

Ulrich Sendler: This technology has been around for some time in other sectors of the economy. How do you see it spreading in the manufacturing and plant engineering industry?

Enrico Hahn: It’s not a new topic in large-scale industry either. There, as I said, we are rather already moving from Cloud Foundry to OpenShift, which is both variants of microservices. And even more so, we usually don’t have to convince a start-up. The young generation in industry almost naturally assumes that everything works the way it does in private IT use, and there the cloud and the Internet are the normal case.

The large enterprise sector with sizes in between takes a little longer. In part, this is certainly due to the available budgets and personnel capacities, with which massive investments were perhaps made in IT only a few years ago. And now larger investments have to be made again in order to stay competitive. That’s where decisions don’t come so easily, even though the pressure is particularly great.

Ulrich Sendler: One last question, Mr. Hahn: What advice do you have for companies and IT managers who want to tackle this technology change now?

Enrico Hahn: The person or persons responsible for such a project must focus one hundred percent on it, especially in the initial phase. A lot of decisions have to be made at very short notice regarding the tools and methods to be chosen, the partners, and the technical requirements for the apps to be built. If someone is only responsible for this among other things and doesn’t see it as a full-time job, time is lost unnecessarily. By the way, we are container-ready and look forward to these projects, which will certainly be launched more frequently in the near future.