Peter von Oven – Founder & Chief Technology Officer
This week, at Droplet Computing, has been a real eye-opener for me, seeing first-hand the different ways and use cases in how Droplet Computing container technology is helping our customers to continue using their business-critical applications – regardless of the operating system, regardless of the hardware platform, and adding into the mix the requirement for connecting external peripherals.
I often get asked which verticals would benefit from deploying Droplet Computing containers. The answer is usually the obvious ones, such as education, healthcare, and various corporate enterprise businesses. But every now and again a new one comes along that is not only interesting but different, giving a new perspective and insight into how other industries use technology.
So why did I choose this title for my latest blog post? To be honest it is a bit of a pun, as this week the Droplet Computing team has been playing with real life train sets in the form of being onsite with a customer who has one of the largest train depots in Europe. Four square miles to be exact!
The other part of the title is referring to the gap between the old operating systems currently being used by the customer and Windows 10 that is very real, and very much a problem.
The issue being faced
Let’s start by describing what the issues and challenges are and give you a bit of an insight that may be familiar to your own environment. It also serves as an intro into how trains work and the challenges faced by this customer in particular.
Trains are expensive pieces of kit and, as a result, they are not renewed that often. I’ve seen this locally where I live as the train operator here has only just replaced their ageing fleet of Intercity 125 trains from the 1970’s! As a result, the way in which trains are managed and maintained is also not up to date with the latest and greatest technologies. This means that the software (and hardware) used to connect to trains is often old and will not run on new computer hardware. That leaves them with the only option of having to stay on an old and insecure OS, as well as taking a chance on the old hardware continuing to work. A big risk given the fines and customer backlash they could face for delays and cancellations. A risk they may well have to take in order to continue servicing their train fleet.
Proving the solution
Our proof point to demonstrate the solution was an application that is used to monitor and diagnose the trains’ power supply and batteries.
The application in this example was running a very old version of Windows on an equally old Dell Latitude D410 laptop. The laptop was connected, via a serial cable, to the management card on the train. From here, the train voltages could be monitored in real time and the error report logs could be viewed and downloaded. The batteries on the train are critical and give the train around 30 minutes of operation should the main supply be unavailable, or the train runs out of diesel. Therefore, management of them is also critical.
Business critical, not legacy
The app that manages these batteries and power supply does not run on Windows 10, as it is an old 16-bit app. However, with the introduction of the Droplet Computing container the app can now be containerized and run on new Windows 10 hardware, allowing the customer to complete their Windows 10 migration program.
The final part of the solution was to use a USB to serial converter cable to physically connect to the train. In our latest version of the Droplet Computing App we have introduced a USB connectivity add-in – or plug-in – to allow the container to talk directly to external peripherals. In this case, that peripheral being a train!
Expanding the use case
But it doesn’t stop there. Have you ever wondered what lurks behind those panels on a train? Well I can tell you, there are multiple systems. Pretty much all of them are managed using an old app, running on an old laptop and connecting via a serial cable. Systems such as the air con, the train doors, passenger counters above the doors, the main train computer (VCU), and even the toilet doors! The other train component for this customer is that the pre-recorded train announcements are stored on a 4MB, yes MB not GB, PCMCIA card!
Solving customer conundrums
In this blog I have focused in on specific issues faced within the rail industry, but where else are there peripheral dependant apps that are stuck on an old OS version? Maybe those scanners and scales in the local supermarket? Maybe the breakdown guy that plugs his laptop into your car at the side of the road? And, of course, all those bespoke health care and educational devices.
Droplet Computing can not only enable those older Windows apps to run on modern devices and operating systems, but the container also makes the apps portable and able to run, without having to change them, on non-Windows devices.
Perhaps, after having read this blog, you have a use case that we can also solve. If so, please get in touch, we love being able to solve these conundrums for our customers!