SCADA system improvements in mobility, integrator use

Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems are making major strides for control engineers and system integrators as they become more versatile and powerful. Learn more from a thought leader on his personal experience on how he’s successfully utilized them.

By Control Engineering June 25, 2024
Courtesy: APCO Inc.

Thoughts on the present and future of supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems and how they benefit controls engineers and system integrators are provided by:

John Jewell, senior control system integrator, APCO Inc., North Salt Lake, Utah

John Jewell, senior control system integrator, APCO Inc., North Salt Lake, Utah.

John Jewell, senior control system integrator, APCO Inc., North Salt Lake, Utah. Courtesy: APCO Inc.

Question: How did SCADA systems evolve from their early beginnings to the sophisticated systems we have today?

Jewell: SCADA systems have evolved significantly from physical relay logic to the sophisticated hardware and software we see today. While a lot of things have driven these changes, it seems like the changes have been largely driven by a combination of the progression of computing technology generally and the vision of individuals in the controls field to identify how those developments could be valuable in control system.

Question: Can you highlight some key milestones in the development of SCADA technology over the years?

Jewell: Some of the significant SCADA technology developments that come to mind include the advent of PLCs, the availability of wireless communications, development and wide availability of the modern PC, solar power solutions for remote sites and the availability of SCADA systems on mobile devices. Each of these developments has been a significant step forward technologically for the industry.

Question: Can you discuss some industry-specific challenges that SCADA systems have helped address or mitigate over the years?

Jewell: SCADA systems are continually being innovated to address industry challenges, and some improvements from these innovations over the years include the use of radio in oil fields to gain the ability to monitor individual wells remotely, improved the ability of municipalities to manage pressure differences between or within pressure zones and more generally the large-scale integration of data has allowed for much larger scale optimization at and between sites through the implementation of advanced controls. These are just a few examples, but it seems like SCADA systems improve every industry where they’re used.

Question: How has the adoption of SCADA systems affected the efficiency, reliability, and safety of critical infrastructure in various sectors?

Jewell: I think we can already see that evolution occurring. We’re seem that systems are being interconnected, bringing data from multiple systems together to be analyzed and optimized on a larger scale. We’re also seeing improved development, optimization and modeling tools to help facilities better leverage the data they collect. I anticipate these developments will continue and will come with their own set of challenges and improvements.

Question: What challenges, particularly in terms of cybersecurity, do you foresee as SCADA systems continue to evolve and integrate with other technologies?

Jewell: Cybersecurity is going to remain front and center because so many bad actors are trying to infiltrate these systems, especially as they become more available online. We’ll continue to see increased coordination required between OT and IT groups. There will be a continual tug of war between desire for remote accessibility and the need to implement cybersecurity best practices. SCADA systems will continue to become more remotely accessible, but this evolution will be slow and careful as new technologies are vetted for this industry.

SCADA’s growing role with mobile devices and remote access

Question: How have SCADA systems evolved in recent years and what role do mobile and remote devices play in this evolution?

Jewell: In recent years, the classic centralized control room approach to SCADA systems is increasingly seeing a transition to more remote accessibility. Many operators can now access their SCADA system from their phone or from a remote computer, and this is resulting in much more dispersed access to SCADA systems. Of course, with the added convenience of accessing SCADA systems from these devices, there are new risks and systems that need to be in place, but there are effective ways to mitigate risks.

Question: What are the main challenges associated with integrating mobile and remote devices into existing SCADA infrastructure?

Jewell: The biggest hurdle to overcome when integrating mobile and remote devices is addressing cybersecurity risks. Going from an air-gapped system to a remotely accessible system requires different considerations around network design, data backup and recovery, user management and other areas. Some other considerations with the addition of these devices include developing interfaces that adapt well to varying screen sizes, development of screens optimized for mobile use and effective presentation of data on smaller screens.

Question: How do mobile and remote devices affect the reliability and availability of SCADA systems, especially in critical infrastructure sectors?

Jewell: Mobile and remote device integration makes a SCADA system available from almost anywhere in the world. I think the change around the reliability of systems has less to do with the fact that access becomes inherently less reliable, but that access becomes dependent on systems managed by other parties.

If access is internet-dependent, it becomes dependent on the reliability planning of an internet provider. However, when accessing a system locally, management of all hardware and software components is within the control of the SCADA system owner. Particularly in critical infrastructure applications, it is important to maintain a protected, local method for access even if in parallel with remote access methods.

Question: What challenges arise when ensuring compatibility between legacy SCADA systems and modern mobile technologies?

Jewell: Compatibility between modern and legacy systems can present problems when users want to achieve something with a legacy system that is possible with a modern system, but achieving the same result in the legacy system requires significantly more development time, introduction of third-party packages or less stable architectures. Ultimately, if integration of mobile/remote technology is a priority, the best outcomes often come from transitioning to modern software and hardware solutions.

Question: What are the potential risks and vulnerabilities introduced by the use of mobile and remote devices in SCADA systems, and how can they be mitigated?

Jewell: The worst-case scenario for a remotely accessible system is that a bad actor could hack your system via a mobile/remote access device or open internet pathway. Any gateway to the internet is less secure than no gateway at all. However, effective mitigation tools exist and can include encrypted VPN messages, locking down phones or other connected devices, multi-factor authentication, effective network design and employee cybersecurity training.

Question: What are the implications of 5G technology on SCADA systems, particularly in terms of increased speed, bandwidth and reliability for remote communication?

Jewell: It opens a lot of doors to allow for remote programming and troubleshooting that was much more limited on older, slower technology with lower bandwidth. It also presents possibilities for remote sites where previously radio communication was sometimes prohibitively expensive because of the need for a repeater site or multiple sites. However, this also means yielding some control over the system in that reliability of communications with such a site is now dependent on an outside communications company.

Question: How do you see the future development of SCADA systems being influenced by the ongoing advancements in mobile and remote device technologies?

Jewell: SCADA systems are seeing ever increasing remote and mobile accessibility, we are going to see SCADA system users continue to increasingly expect that their systems should be accessible from their mobile devices. This will come with additional cybersecurity methods and tools that will be key to protecting systems from unauthorized access. This will likely mean updated industry standards and best practices, new programming and network design approaches and new hardware used to better protect SCADA systems.

Effective SCADA strategies for system integrators

Question: What role do system integrators play in the successful implementation and maintenance of SCADA systems?

Jewell: System integrators are critical to the implementation of a SCADA system because ultimately the everyday operation comes down to the tools and interfaces the integrator has provided to the user in the SCADA system. In the course of cutover, testing and implementation itself, the value of an integrator comes from their experience performing this process repeatedly for various clients on various platforms so they can help customers avoid pitfalls they’ve already encountered.

System integrators also play a key role in educating a client on the state of technology, best practices, industry standards, and case-by-case questions/concerns. They help guide clients towards long term upgrade strategies to address ever-changing SCADA technology.

Question: Can you provide examples of successful SCADA system integrations that significantly improved operational efficiency or security in industrial settings?

Jewell: I recently participated in a SCADA system replacement for a client that had a read-only, local system with minimal security. We worked closely with them to educate them about the various software platforms available to them with the advantages and disadvantages of each and we performed the same process with them regarding programmable logic controller (PLC) hardware and communications hardware. Eventually, based on the upgrade decisions they made, we upgraded them to a modern SCADA system with encrypted communications, mobile and remote access and upgraded network and cybersecurity standards.

Question: How important is the consideration of scalability in SCADA system integration, especially in industries experiencing rapid growth or changes in technology? 

Jewell: The up-front consideration of scalability when designing a SCADA system can have significant cost impacts down the road. With anticipation of future possible expansions, those future expansions can ultimately cost less than they would have otherwise. This includes considering in advance things like spare space in the control panels, modularity of developed PLC code, SCADA server processing power and long-term network design. Detailed planning can also help avoid unexpected hardware and software limitations.

Question: How do you manage the potential risks associated with third-party components and devices when integrating SCADA systems, especially in terms of compatibility and security?

Jewell: When considering the risks of third-party components, the first consideration is whether the third-party device is truly needed. Sometimes the same functionality can be achieved without going to a third-party device. However, if it is necessary to go that route, then it’s important to familiarize oneself with the available documentation of that device to try and understand where risks might exist. It also helps to consider devices that have a proven track record of success in the SCADA industry, and to ask contacts in the industry what devices they may be using to accomplish similar tasks at their facility.

Question: Can you share insights into the role of SCADA systems in critical infrastructure and the unique challenges faced when integrating these systems in such environments?

Jewell: The role of SCADA systems in critical infrastructure is to provide a continuous, reliable and secure interface with plant or facility controls and to provide effective visualization of site data and alarms. The SCADA system must function as a tool for the operators to more effectively perform their jobs. Integrating into critical infrastructure requires detailed consideration of potential downtime, methods to minimize or avoid downtime and planning with parties that might be impacted by a potential outage of a given facility or site.