In most situations, sitting on a box on a street corner in a big city means you’re a crazy person yelling at people about the apocalypse. However, I was casually having my boots shined and this was the perfect vantage point to get a feel for the coming days. I peered over my caffè latte, trying to seem nonchalant. A stone’s throw to my left, some new arrivals were unloading their taxis in front of the hotel entrance. A patchy beard… check, a superhero t-shirt… check, multiple computer bags slung around each neck… check. Those guys are PI power users, I told myself, and they’re going to OSIsoft vCampus Live! 2011. I grinned with pride over my coffee and began analyzing the taxi that was pulling up. Oops… shoes done!
OSIsoft’s vCampus Live! 2011 was held at the exquisite Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco. Standing in the main entrance looking over the Garden Court, one can’t help but wonder how many US Presidents have come through its halls. As it turns out, many have… too many to write down. With conference rooms named Napa, Marina, Presidio, Pacific Heights, and Telegraph Hill, it feels like a cross section of bay area neighborhoods all in one building. And what better way to experience the Silicon Valley than at a high tech conference. OSIsoft is the big man in town in terms of data infrastructure software. The PI System has become the global industry standard in enterprise infrastructure, for management of real-time data and events. OSIsoft vCampus Live! is all about getting the best and brightest PI System power users and developers, from companies all over the world, and letting them sink their teeth into OSIsoft products.
The event had three major components, the hands on sessions, the developers lounge, and the track sessions. I started in on a hands on session titled, “Migrating to an Asset Centric PI System.” Stephen Kwan, a product manager with OSIsoft, stood at the front of the room next to a pile of tech equipment and a projector screen. Some 50 expectant pupils sat at laptop stations clicking away within a virtual machine created specifically for this hands on session and served from a server in the pile next to Steve. Regardless of industry, these guys all worked at companies that have machines, or assets, which produce data and have monitoring instruments on them. All those data streams, combined with all the data streams coming from all the other machines at the company, are stored in the PI System. The art of the PI System administrator begins with a question, “How do I find a particular data stream on a particular asset?” Traditionally, this was handled by naming conventions. That is, a data stream is named, or tagged, so that it is obvious what information it contains. But when dealing with tags in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions, tag names can get a bit unwieldy. For example, a tag name could easily look like this, 01212010osi.randd.kansas.kansascity.genplant.boilers.boiler02.temp1. Now try searching, analyzing, and creating equations with a million tags named like that. The solution, Steve was showing us, is to reference all that data from the PI Asset Framework. This groups tag based on which piece of equipment they belong to and organizes them into wonderful hierarchical structures.
We began the exercise in Microsoft Excel, the trusty old sword of the engineering world. Using a plug-in for Excel, one could create all the hierarchical structures and associate them with all the tags needed. It worked, but was a little complicated and required that the engineer make zero typos. Engineer… no typos. But Steve had more up his sleeve, “Ok, now that we’ve finished that up,” said Steve smiling, “I just want to let you know that this is the stupid way to migrate your data.” He made hand gestures like he was blocking the groans coming from the audience. “Now wait just a second, this is just like school. They teach you the stupid hard way first, and then they teach you the smart way.” Some in the crowd chuckled and then Steve guided us through the same exercise, only using the OSIsoft PI AF Client tool called PI System Explorer to create a quick template that basically automatically populates an asset based on the naming conventions already in place. It saved a significant amount of time. I was still trying to get my AF structure the way I wanted it when I overheard the guys behind me talking. One had a thick Spanish accent, and the other a terse German accent. They had finished early and the German was explaining breakthroughs he’d had creating tags at work. The Spaniard was amazed and jotting down notes. Then he began talking about some things he had learned from making templates and then it was the German's turn to find pen and paper. Both seemed to have had little or no formal training with the PI system, but had self-taught themselves to be experts and were sharing revelations. Steve ended the lab with some words of wisdom, “Don’t forget to use units of measure in your AF element attributes. If you don’t, it can cause your space craft to crash into the wrong planet… upside down.” Ah, the Mars orbiter.
The next day I found myself in the developers’ lounge listening in to what amounted to Klingon as far as I could tell. The PI power users had found their groove now and coagulated into circles of combined IQ in the thousands. Dazed from searching my mind for acronyms and terms I’d never heard, I sat down to enjoy a coffee with Mike Christopher, a friend and fellow coworker. Across from us sat a well-dressed guy with a badge that read, Francois Ruel, Hulix Conseil. A bell went off in my head. I knew something about this company.
“Oh hey, you guys did the athlete monitoring stuff right?” I broke the ice. I had read through a slide deck about how Hulix used the PI System to interface with and collect data from athletes. They were working on a new model to optimize performance by analyzing the data.
“yeah, that’s us.” Francois replied amused.
Another bell went off.
“Didn’t you ask some questions about linear regression in the ‘machine learning’ session this morning that Mike here gave?” I nodded to Mike.
I might as well have put Lance Armstrong and Michael Phelps together and told them to talk exercise routines. It was the perfect storm of dedicated engineers and youthful enthusiasm. Mike and Francois locked in and began discussing techniques they had used to predict future data. Mike had just given a talk on using Math Works famous MATLAB program together with PI System data to model and predict data trends. Francois had done his own work modeling Pulp & Paper mill data. He recounted the time he and a colleague had zeroed in on a faulty steam condenser valve. The fix saved the mill $8K annually. One remark Francois made stuck with me, “You don’t have weeks to model these processes with high powered modeling software. You need a tool to quickly go in and analyze the process and make a recommendation to the engineers. And that’s where PI ProcessBook and now PI Coresight are really useful.” At some point, I chimed in again to ask if there were any other non-traditional projects he had done involving the PI System, like the one with athlete monitoring. Francois paused a moment before a mischievous smile took over his face. “Well I did interface with the electric and gas meters at my house using my office's PI System. I did it to show my girlfriend how much her long showers were costing us.” We all laughed as I imagined this confused and frustrated significant other unable to argue with her nerdy boyfriend’s usage charts. And then he continued, “One time I was giving a presentation to some financial people and I put my live house data up on screen. Then I called my girlfriend and asked her to turn on the shower and we all watched the trends going up.” Awesome!
After the show, I was reflecting over a delicious plate of catered food in the Gold Ballroom. Two gentlemen sat down next to me and Mike Purcell. Mike, OSIsoft’s Sales Support Manager, is able to talk software shop with the best of them and was soon chatting away like old friends with the guy closer to him. As it turned out, Peter Hulse of E.On was next me and I asked him what he thought of the show. “You know,” he said with a sly English accent, “this event is quite different. You see, I’ve been to a few of your Users Conferences (OSIsoft’s biggest annual event) and this is a lot more ‘hands on’, which is what I was looking for.” I responded by paraphrasing my hands on session experience. He then summed up the show for me, “The best way to see new stuff and what people are doing with the PI System is to come to these types of things.” I sat back in astonishment. That’s what I had been simultaneously sensing and looking for throughout the past two days.
OSIsoft vCampus' greatest accomplishment is providing an environment of collaboration and innovation for the crème de la crème of PI System wizards. Here are people from all over the world who have independently developed ways to save their companies time, energy, and money. And they’re swapping tips back and forth; homing in on some global gold standard for data management using the PI System.