About 13 years ago, a new software product was released for retail sale and within its first 5 years of existence more than 400 million copies were sold, the birth of Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system for personal computers. At the time of its release, it was a significant upgrade over its predecessors in terms of performance, security, efficiency and stability, and it was the most widely used operating system in the world for a full decade.

With all of the opportunities presented by today’s data-driven enterprise, the time has come to consider whether your SCADA system is limiting your potential. 

On 8th April, 2014, Microsoft ceased extended support for this enormously popular product. Product support or security updates were no longer being provided for the Windows XP operating system from then onwards. There is a lesson to be learned here about SCADA systems in today’s technologically advanced industrial environment. 

What is SCADA?

Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems are industrial automation control systems at the core of various industries including oil and gas, food and beverage, manufacturing, power, energy, water and sewerage among others. They are used for remote monitoring and real-time control of a large variety of industrial devices enabling automation of complex industrial processes where human control might be impractical. 

Evolution of SCADA Systems

Early SCADA systems were standalone systems with virtually no connectivity to other systems. Redundancy was achieved using two identically equipped mainframes, primary and backup, connected at the bus level. The backup mainframe system was connected to all the Remote Terminal Units and was used in the event of failure of the primary mainframe.

The next generation of SCADA systems employed the Local Area Network (LAN) technology enabling SCADA systems to be connected to other systems and the introduction of PC- based HMI software. This allowed distributed processing whereby multiple stations, each with a specific function, were connected to a LAN and shared information with each other in real-time providing more processing power for the system as a whole than would have been possible with a single processor. 

Modern SCADA systems allow near real-time access to data from the plant floor from anywhere in the world. This facilitates making of well informed and data-driven decisions on process improvement by the plant owners. The introduction of modern IT standards and practices such as SQL and web-based applications into SCADA software has greatly improved the efficiency, security, productivity, and reliability of SCADA systems. SQL databases with SCADA systems make integration into existing Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems be easy, allowing seamless flow of data through an entire organization.

Most SCADA systems in place today were deployed 7, 10, even 20 years ago! If we think about the way technology has changed in the last 20 or even 10 years, it is preposterous to think that a 10-year-old software is taking full advantage of the opportunities available. And not only has technology changed, but the very concepts that are fundamental to process automation have evolved beyond anything that would have been conceivable to a software developer 20 years ago. 

We are entering the era of big data and the industrial Internet of Things. There are more sensors and actuators on today’s plant floor than SCADA developers would have thought possible 20 years ago. Older SCADA systems were never designed to connect with the number of machines, sensors and other assets that manufacturers now want to monitor and control. Nor were they designed to handle the amount of data traffic and records these connections can generate. This lack of scalability, including the ability to access information through the Internet, can be a significant barrier to improving the quality and productivity of manufacturing processes. 

The reality is that it doesn’t matter what kind of fancy new equipment you install or data management strategies you implement if your SCADA software is operating with yesterday’s technology as a limitation. Old SCADA technology can have the same sort of limiting effect on your automated processes, regardless of how smart your equipment or your management strategy is.

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