September 9, 2020 By Gerry Kirk 8 min read

This is the story of a global IBM process control system, conceived in Canada 48 years ago, that incredibly is still serving customers successfully.

In early 1972, IBM Canada received an RFP from Imperial Oil Limited (IOL)/Exxon for a process control system that would have the capability to operate IOL’s ever larger and complex refinery systems, like the one they were going to start up at Edmonton, Alberta. Given IOL’s requirements, IBM’s then-current process control system solutions (1800 DAIS system, developed in Sarnia in 1968 and the IBM 1800 system at Ontario Hydro in 1971) could not measure up. A new solution was required, one requiring new technology and a more robust design.  A plus for IBM was that IOL had confidence in IBM’s ability to implement process control systems, as was demonstrated at IOL’s Sarnia refinery.

A core team, led by John Buchan, comprised of John Barron, Doug McWhirter, Larry Baker, Art Caston, Ken Sutherland, and Peter Long, together with Jack Ferren with A/FE Contract Practices, prepared IBM’s response to the Exxon/IOL RFP.  IBM’s “turnkey, fixed-price” proposal offered an innovative solution known as the Advanced Control System (ACS).

Doug McWhirter recalls: “John Buchan’s role was key to our proposal. When presented with this RFP, IBM had little relevant experience in 1972 with complex, commercial, fixed price, turnkey projects. It was tempting to reject this as representing an unacceptably high-risk opportunity. John was the driving force which pushed the company to overcome technical, financial and contractual obstacles.” Bernie Kuehn, IBM Canada Sales VP, spearheaded this initiative, with support from IBM Canada’s ORC (Operations Review Committee), which included Jack Brent, Lorne Lodge and Carl Corcoran. Art Caston recalls: “Bernie Kuehn made the strong point, after the loss to Univac at Ontario Hydro, that to be successful in future bids of this type, it would require forward pricing of the software development over multiple future prospects.”

IOL and Exxon Research & Engineering (ER&E) selected the ACS proposal in September 1972, over competitive bids from Foxboro and Honeywell. The ACS solution was to be deployed at the IOL Strathcona refinery being built at Edmonton, Alberta.

Gerry Ebker, retired Chairman and CEO of FSD recalls: “Vin Learson was Chairman of IBM Corp. and also on the board of EXXON Corp. at that time. Vin had said that every time EXXON had an IT opportunity, IBM lost. He directed that the next time there was a bid opportunity, IBM had better win. When the automation of refineries in Edmonton, Canada came up for bid, IBM bid a fixed-price turn-key solution and won.”

The ACS solution was visualized as a process control system operating on dual IBM mainframes with IBM front-end processors offering high-speed online input/output data streams to and from industrial plant equipment in real time.   ACS was designed to automatically perform process control functions to control thousands of plant process operations, with hundreds of operations being controlled each and every second. The IOL Strathcona installation employed a pair of System 370/145 mainframes in order to provide a backup/failover capability, ensuring continuous operation in case the primary mainframe failed. Color graphic terminals provided plant operators with a variety of vivid and easy-to-use “live” displays from which to monitor/control the plant. The diagram below broadly illustrates the ACS hardware components as initially installed at Exxon’s Strathcona refinery.

Advanced Control System hardware components (Strathcona Refinery)

Late in 1972, the ACS project came to life at the Federal Systems Division (FSD) facility at Clear Lake City. This facility housed the FSD staff that developed the Real Time Operating System (RTOS) for monitoring and guiding NASA’s Apollo and Gemini missions. Their experience and knowhow formed the basis for the ACS Special Real Time Operating System (SRTOS). Ira Saxe, project manager, formed the initial ACS team that included FSD development staff, five Canadian IBMers (Peter Long, Ash Abhyankar, John Mathewson, Clark Starrie and Gerry Kirk) and two UK IBMers (Dave Vesty and Tony Hamilton).

At the same time, several Exxon and ER&E staff, led by Roy Lieber, also joined the ACS project in order to monitor project status, clarify functional requirements and provide timely feedback on the software being developed by IBM.  Eventually, the ACS project brought together a diverse and talented group from numerous organizations, including Exxon Research and Engineering, Imperial Oil Canada, IOL Strathcona refinery, IBM Canada, IBM Federal Systems division, IBM Corporation, IBM UK, and IBM Italy. A veritable United Nations development team!

In June 1973, Esso Antwerp and IBM Belgium joined the ACS project. This added a second Exxon refinery installation and along with it came additional requirements.

Early in 1974, the project was shored up with the appointment of Brian Finn, as Systems Manager, with direct access to Ralph Pfeiffer, and later the appointment of Gerry Ebker, as the senior FSD project manager.

The ACS software development team was organized across several functional components. The sub-teams worked together closely to bring the following software components into a single integrated system:

  • Special Real Time Operating System (SRTOS) – provided real-time extensions of the normal OS/VS1 operating system functions, such as task management, storage management, etc.
  • Display management (DISM) – provided display management functions for operator/engineer communications, using colour graphic terminals to display process variable information, operating targets, performance or response graphs and process schematics (see sample schematic below).
  • Supervisory services – provided services to access process variable data, utilities to report process variable information and alarm history, and track functional changes to variables.
  • File builder – provided forms to define process variables, general algorithms, and process commands without programming.
  • Process unit control (PUC) – provided the engine that did the second-by-second processing of process variable inputs, using various defined algorithms to generate output values, at a rate of 200-300 variables per second.
  • Data Acquisition and Monitoring Option (DAMO) – provided the interface between the S/370 and the front-end System/7 processor. This included streaming of process variable inputs and outputs, sending instrumentation language, and error handling.
  • Frontend processor – resident in the System/7, this processor provided the analog and digital read/write interface to industrial plant instrumentation.
  • Oil Movements and Storage (OM&S) – provided automated scheduling, direction and control of the movement of products through refinery components and to external pipelines, storage tanks and ships.

Sample process unit control schematic

The first customer installation of ACS at the newly built IOL Strathcona refinery adjacent to Edmonton, Alberta, began in summer of 1974 and was completed February 1976. Roy Lieber was appointed Exxon’s project manager for the installation. IBMers John Mathewson, Gerry Kirk and Gord Stretch formed the onsite support team. Gord supported the IBM hardware installation and ensured proper connectivity between the System/7 and refinery instrumentation. John and Gerry worked closely with the Clear Lake City development team to configure software and fix software problems.

The ACS installation faced a stringent acceptance test, where the system had to run without failure for 30 consecutive days. Gerry Kirk remembers: “As the ACS installation progressed, the software became more and more stable.  The 30 day no-fail target looked to be within grasp, when the ACS system unexpectedly crashed on the 26th day due to a lack of virtual storage. The irony was that the storage problem was caused by the OS/VSI operating system.” Mike Burns, IBM Western Region VP at the time of the Strathcona install, recalls: “The unique thing that stood out in my mind till today was not the hardware or the software, rather it was the culture of our client EXXON. The professionalism and integrity that they demonstrated in every situation was really admirable.”

Esso Belgium’s plans to modernize and expand its refinery at Antwerp led to a second ACS installation that began in January 1976 and was completed December 1976. Ulen Jackson served as Exxon’s team leader for the installation.   IBMers Mauro Castelpietra, Joe Davis, Earl Ellisor, and Lenny Koll, led by Gary Young, formed the onsite support team.

Mauro Castelpietra recalled his ACS development and installation experience: “Failure was not an option. In addition to supporting the Antwerp installation, we developed several ACS enhancements and diagnostic tools which benefited many subsequent ACS installations.” Mauro went on to build a tremendous career around installing and supporting ACS throughout the world.

ACS also went on to play a key role in education, where IBM partnered with universities (Waterloo, Purdue, Tulane, Notre Dame, etc.), to make ACS installations available to their chemical engineering departments and students. Gerry Sullivan, with the University of Waterloo Chemical Engineering Faculty, promoted ACS at his and other universities in North America.

He remembers ACS: “In the past, process control courses were very theoretical and the methodology could only be applied to very simple processes. ACS allowed us to support our theoretical process control lectures with real time simulations and control of typical complex petrochemical processes. Industry applauded the new approach and were delighted with the knowledge and practical skills exhibited by our graduates.”

The ACS project was favored with exceptional leaders, who navigated the ACS project to be greatly successful. Three of the leaders went on to contribute to IBM’s global growth:

  • Brian Finn, who represented IBM World Trade, went on to become leader for IBM in India and South Asia, then IBM Asia Pacific and eventually retired as Chairman and CEO of IBM Australia and New Zealand.
  • Garry Rasmussen, who represented IBM Canada, went on to become VP and CIO at Merrill Lynch and subsequently President and CEO at IBM Canada’s joint venture with Canadian telecommunication organizations.
  • Gerry Ebker, who represented IBM FSD, went on to become Chairman and CEO of IBM FSD, managing IBM’s significant business growth with the U.S. federal government, leading over 20,000 IBM FSD employees.

ACS development and support continued through the 1980’s and 1990’s, initially led by Gerry Kirk, with responsibilities centered in the IBM Canada Toronto Lab. IBM Canada personnel were also involved in worldwide marketing of ACS.  Over time, ACS customer installations grew to number over 120 worldwide, in the following countries: Canada, USA, Brazil, Venezuela, UK, Spain, France, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Japan, Philippines, Singapore, and Australia. ACS proved its adaptability by controlling plants and refineries across several industries: petroleum, chemical, pulp and paper, mining, steel, glass, pharmaceutical, utilities, and gas distribution. And after 45 years at Strathcona refinery, ACS is still in operation today in at least 10 industrial plants across the globe!

In July 2020, a few of the original ACS team members, from 1975, got together for a virtual Zoom reunion. Once the participants from Canada, USA and Australia adjusted to their aged appearances, stories flooded back of the “good old days” some 45 plus years ago. The birth of the Advanced Control System has formed many lasting memories. Memories of colleagues, friendship and achievement, enveloped by something special called ACS. More virtual reunions are planned for the fall, with larger global participation.

ACS Zoom reunion

Many thanks to those that made this article possible, especially Ash Abhyankar and Brian Finn for their valuable input, reviews and corrections[1]. And we fondly remember those who contributed to ACS and have passed away — they will live on in our hearts.[2]

>>Take a tour of the modern mainframe.

Gerry Kirk is a 1999 retiree from IBM Canada, now residing in Scottsdale, Arizona.

[1] Article Contributors

  • IBM Canada: Ash Abhyankar, Larry Baker, John Buchan, Mike Burns, Art Caston, Peter Long, Doug McWhirter, John Thompson
  • IBM FSD/WTC: Joe Davis, Gerry Ebker, Brian Finn
  • IBM Europe: Robin Brooks, Mauro Castelpietra, Wim ten Wolde
  • Exxon/IOL: Ara Barsamian, Roy Lieber, Cam McAlpine
  • University of Waterloo: Gerry Sullivan

[2] In fond memory of:

  • IBM Canada ACS team members during 1972-1976: Ken Sutherland, John Barron, Jack Jette, Garry Rasmussen, Clark Starrie.
  • Other IBM ACS team members from 1973-1975: Jack Ferren, Lynn Holmes, Jim Latimer, Ira Saxe, Dave Vesty
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