No-Limits SCADA: A Case for Unlimited Tags and Clients
Digital resources once had their precious cycles metered out, but we are currently in the midst of an explosion of innovation driven by wasting bandwidth. What would happen if tags and clients were suddenly made abundant?
Strange and wonderful things can happen when resources are wasted. Blasphemous as this may sound in an age of waning fossil fuel reserves and when much of humanity goes hungry, not all resources are inherently scarce like food and fuel. In particular, many technological resources are abundant, and can yield exciting and unexpected results when wasted.
This is the argument laid out by Chris Anderson in his Wired article, "Tech Is Too Cheap to Meter: It's Time to Manage for Abundance, Not Scarcity." In the world of industrial software, resources are scarce. Tags, clients, and windows are precious currency of a control systems integrator. Were these resources to become abundant, HMI, SCADA and MES software systems would see a renaissance in innovation like so many industries before them.
People naturally view resources as scarce, so when something that was once scarce becomes abundant, it may not be immediately apparent.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to Alan Kay for famously wasting computing resources to draw icons and windows on a monitor, inventing the modern graphical user interface in the process. Before this, computers were exclusively the domain of large corporations and universities, their precious cycles metered out. In a very similar sense, we are currently in the midst of an explosion of innovation driven by wasting bandwidth.Now that unmetered broadband has been rolled out en masse, bandwidth is abundant. Sites like YouTube waste tremendous amounts of bandwidth with their free-for-all video sharing model. The result is an explosion of new ideas about what makes for good video. These ideas would never have happened on television: the resource of schedule time is too scarce for that kind of risky innovation.
Sometimes the difference between scarcity and abundance is not so clear. People naturally view resources as scarce, so when something that was once scarce becomes abundant, it may not be immediately apparent. This is amplified by the fact that sometimes a resource is treated as scarce simply because it is measurable. Often this is done to maximize profits, at the expense of innovation. Phone companies are notorious for doing this. Cell phone minutes and SMS messages are abundant resources, just a different form of bandwidth, after all. But because they travel over proprietary private networks and can be measured, they are made artificially scarce. The writing is on the wall for these phone companies as the phone networks merge with the internet, and measurement ceases to be practical.
SCADA software vendors can be guilty of creating scarcity through measurement as well. Tags and clients are easy things to measure, and so they are made scarce in the pursuit of profits. An argument could be made that this is an efficient way for these software vendors to measure the value of the systems that they sell, and to the extent that it is an efficient system, this is true. However, any systems integrator or facility manager will tell you that the value of a system is not in the sum of its tags, nor in the number of clients. The true value of an industrial software project is much more difficult to measure, and is individual to every facility. The result is that only those projects whose true value is greater than or equal to the cost of the required tags and clients get implemented.
Two decades ago, when SCADA was coming of age, there were physical limitations that created a scarcity of tags and clients. Clients were heavyweight pieces of software or hardware that needed to be installed and maintained separately. Tag counts corresponded to physical limitations of serial connections, fieldbus converters, processing power and memory. Today, however, we have reliable industrial Ethernet, quad-core processors and web-based client distribution; tags and clients are now by all rights abundant. It is only licensing, a form of measurement, that makes them scarce.
What would happen if tags and clients were suddenly made abundant? We can only guess. History has shown that the innovation spurred by wasting abundant resources often leads in unexpected directions. At the very least, an entire classification of projects that require a large number of tags or clients or both but are currently cost prohibitive would suddenly become viable. Areas of plants that are still monitored via clipboards and circle charts would certainly be brought online. Efficiency, statistical analysis, and real-time visibility would permeate all corners of every facility. Plants would have unified systems because they could grow their existing system rather than commission new ones when new assets are brought online. The most exciting innovations will be made by engineers as they are creating SCADA systems without any limitations.
SCADA vendors, of course, need to stay in business and software is expensive to develop, maintain, and support. We can't fault the SCADA vendors for making money, and their business model of measured scarcity has served them well thus far. But it is time for new business models to be explored. Technology has changed, and industrial software must change with it. Clients are now web deployed. Tags are accessible from anywhere on the network. The time for unmetered industrial software systems is now.
Carl Gould is a software developer at Inductive Automation . Inductive Automation produces software that reduces frustration and increases efficiency in the industrial automation market. Their software facilitates the instant accessibility of meaningful information throughout the enterprise.
For more on control system automation, tags and SCADA systems, visit www.controleng.com