By: Allan Evora
Evaluate your existing SCADA control system for improvements and you may wind up saving.
In my experience, the most common reasons for not upgrading a SCADA control system include perceived investment loss and perceived expenses for new licensing/training. Those who uphold the, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality don’t always see the value in upgrades when, in their mind, everything is working fine.
In reality, regular upgrades to your SCADA system may actually wind up saving your organization time, resources, and money.
When evaluating your existing system for improvements, here are 10 things to consider.
-----------ON THE HARDWARE SIDE-----------
1. Supporting Hardware Reaching End of Life
Many different hardware devices support the SCADA system, like networking switches and computers. Once those devices reach their end of life, OEM warranty or extended support is typically no longer available. The problem is, lack of support means lengthier downtime during equipment failures, usually not an option in mission critical environments.
Because SCADA is a critical component, it makes sense to maintain hardware equipment that’s always under OEM warranty to receive same day or next day support. Most manufactures offer 3-5 year warranties, so there’s a natural hardware replacement cycle.
However, instrumentation and controls hardware, like PLCs, are a different story. They’re not as simple as replacing a computer, and quite cost prohibitive to upgrade. The good news is, the lifecycle of instrumentations and controls hardware is pretty long and obtaining spare parts for replacement of failed components or parts is quite simple. Unlike computers, in which technology and operating systems are constantly changing, PLC hardware tends to last anywhere from 10-20 years.
2. Scarcity of Replacement Hardware Parts
In other cases, obtaining spare parts or replacing failed parts can become more expensive than purchasing an entirely new system.
A great example is UNC Chapel Hill, who maintains several hundred environmental chambers on campus. Getting replacement parts for their outdated controls became quite a challenge, and even then, they could only source them from the original manufacturer. Due to scarcity, pricing was quite expensive.
The good news is, buying an entirely new system is often more cost effective than upgrading…plus you get better, newer technology. UNC Chapel Hill decided to go with brand new non-proprietary controls, which also gave them the opportunity to greatly increase system functionality.
3. Compliance with IT Standards
Compliance is probably the main reason to upgrade hardware associated with a SCADA system. Corporate mandates exist in most organizations, especially mission critical, that outline current minimum IT standards.
A great example is the minimum operating system allowed for computer systems. Most organizations no longer support Windows XP, but instead outline Windows 7 as the bare minimum and set their preference to Windows 10. Enforcing a minimum standard often forces necessary hardware upgrades that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred.
Similarly, there can be IT security standards that may require the use of better security appliances, such as routers, firewalls, and VPNs.
---------------------ON THE SOFTWARE SIDE---------------------
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4. Maintaining Consistency
It can be quite a challenge to maintain a system that’s consistent across multiple or growing facilities. Capabilities change, and how an integrator develops within the software can change as well.
One of Affinity Energy’s large healthcare clients installed three energy plants in separate facilities in 2004, 2008, and 2011. As you probably surmised, the software we integrated in 2008 was a later version than we installed in 2004. The software we integrated in 2011 was an even later version than the two previous. In order to maintain consistency across the customer’s enterprise, we upgraded each facility’s system to the latest version during every new addition.
Not only does upgrading across multiple facilities also help with supportability and maintenance, it also helps avoid additional incurred costs in programming older environments within new environments.
A quick note: If you have a maintenance contract with a SCADA vendor, the opportunity to upgrade might already part of your support contract.
5. Mobile Support
Today, the notion of sitting in front of a console watching a system perform is less and less desired. In fact, I would say the ability to view your SCADA system on the go through your tablet or phone is today’s #1 demand in SCADA. A SCADA system that supports mobile is high on the list of reasons to upgrade.
Some systems 5 years ago may have supported mobile access, but advances to today’s systems allow for significantly better features, such as native apps for your iOS or Android device. These apps make interacting with your system more productive, since they present the entire HMI experience (originally made for a high resolution monitor) in a user-friendly manner.
6. Upgrading Security
The demands for enhanced security within SCADA systems pinpoints yet another reason to consider upgrading. SCADA software more than 5 years old probably doesn’t have or can’t comply with simple security standards such as two factor authentication or encryption.
Rising awareness of new security standards in instrumentation and controls includes:
- Communications protocols: Typically, the latest communications protocols are only supported by the latest version of SCADA software. For example, SNMP v3.
- User authentication: Even within the hardware itself, using biometrics to access a system is becoming more and more common.
- Remote access: The SCADA systems with the highest level of security have developed a specific app (e.g., ICONICS) rather than relying on a mobile device’s browser to access SCADA software.
7. Eliminating Antiquated Features
SCADA is a relatively new industry. As software has matured over time, best practices have emerged, and some functionalities once thought important have become antiquated. One byproduct of updating your software is that you remove wasteful or distracting functionality, such as:
- Built-in Reporting: Over time, most SCADA solutions have divested themselves from reporting. The reason? Most don’t have a good reporting package. Instead, they’ve bolstered up their APIs for supporting reporting packages (e.g., Excel, Crystal Reports, Dream Report.)
- 3D Graphics: The emphasis on 3D, moving, and dynamic graphics has waned significantly in the past few years. For end-users, those fancy graphics represented a serious distraction. Now, developers focus on simplicity. For example, Wonderware recently released situational awareness functionality within HMIs that only draws attention to items that require action.
8. Adding New Functionality
A functioning SCADA system doesn’t always require the latest and greatest. But some new functions provide significant benefits that may increase efficiency. For example:
- Forecasting: Advanced analytics and forecasting simulations are definitely a rising trend in SCADA. These are typically emphasized in advanced SCADA situations, such as optimizing energy usage or simulating different operating scenarios within the facility.
- Enterprise Support and Connectivity: Another important trend is the ability for a SCADA system to interface with other enterprise solutions such as ticketing systems or customer relationship management systems.
- High Availability/Redundant Architecture: If a portion of your network is offline, having a redundant computer to ensure communication to critical equipment is essential. SCADA software like Trihedral has made out-of-the-box redundancy a standard offering and easy to configure. Historians can now support store-and-forward capability in order to minimize data gaps, and multiple communications channels support redundancy to field devices.
9. Easier Scaling Through Object Based Development
One reason to upgrade SCADA is to enable object oriented design and development.
Object oriented design and modular integration is a process of designing a system around software “objects” and blocks. Using one common language, similar equipment, and standard layouts, integration is broken into smaller, easily-managed blocks quickly and inexpensively added through a cookie-cutter approach.
Perhaps you’re planning to expand a facility. Continuing to develop in an older environment could represent significant cost. Instead, by developing a template through object oriented design and essentially copying the engineering for each new facility, you reduce development cost and save time spent on development and commissioning.
10. Saving with Cloud-Based SCADA
Most mission critical environments would never use cloud-based SCADA. However, the emergence and popularity of SaaS SCADA does make sense for other applications. Because the software exists in the cloud, there are no hardware costs (besides metering and instrumentation) or licensing fees.
Cloud-based SCADA provides an environment to program in and connect to your equipment through the internet. All the same types of functions will exist, except it is viewed through a web browser instead of an onsite computer.
Cloud-based SCADA is quite economical for organizations with older SCADA systems that don’t need critical control or require a high degree of data security. Ideal candidates include commercial buildings and universities that use SCADA software to track energy usage, as well as some renewable energy systems such as solar.
Allan D. Evora is a leading expert in control systems integration and president of Affinity Energy with over 20 years of industry experience working in every capacity of the power automation project life cycle. With a background at Boeing Company and General Electric, Allan made the decision to establish Affinity Energy in 2002. Allan is an alumnus of Syracuse University with a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering, graduate of the NC State Energy Management program, and qualified as a Certified Measurement & Verification Professional (CMVP).
Throughout his career, Allan has demonstrated his passion for providing solutions. In 1990, he developed FIRST (Fast InfraRed Signature Technique), a preliminary design software tool used to rapidly assess rotary craft infrared signatures. In 2008, Allan was the driving force behind the development of Affinity Energy's Utilitrend; a commercially available, cloud-based utility resource trending, tracking, and reporting software.
Allan has been instrumental on large scale integration projects for utilities, universities, airports, financial institutions, medical campus utility plants, and manufacturing corporations, and has worked with SCADA systems since the early ‘90s. A passion for data acquisition, specialty networks, and custom software drives him to incorporate openness, simplicity, and integrity into every design in which he is involved.