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. Today, over 1 billion copies have been sold. And what was this hugely successful software product? Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system for personal computers. A the time of its release, it was a significant upgrade over its predecessors in terms of performance and usability, and it was the most widely used operating system in the world for a full decade.
Then, in April of this year, Microsoft ceased extended support for this enormously popular product. No more product support or security updates would be available. Did Microsoft do this because they hated their millions of customers? Did they discover some long-overlooked defect that would render the product dangerous or unstable? No. They simply knew that better operating systems were available, and even though Windows XP was a wonderful product that served many people very well, its time had come and gone.
During XP’s wonderful run, computer technology continued to evolve. Much more powerful processors were created. Faster communication interfaces were developed. Computers began to operate in ways that could not possibly have been considered when XP was developed all those years ago. And what is the point in buying a new computer with all of these fancy new capabilities if you are running an operating system that will treat your computer as if it were built a decade earlier? The fact is that taking full advantage of your new computer’s speed and power requires a new operating system – an operating system designed for today’s technology.
What Does This Have to do With SCADA?
There is a lesson to be learned here about SCADA software in today’s industrial environment. 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 10-year-old software is taking full advantage of the opportunites 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.
A recent article by AutomationWorld’s Jeanne Schweder investigates the changing industrial workplace and how existing SCADA systems are really holding companies back from taking full advantage of the opportunities available today. Per the article:
“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. Imagine buying a high-powered sports car with state-of-the-art technology and world class performance benchmarks. Then imagine taking the engine from a 20-year-old sedan with half of the horsepower and twice the emissions and using it to power your new sports car. Do you expect to get the maximum performance out of the car? The same top speed? The same acceleration? What about your gas mileage? Can we really expect any of the hardware to perform up to its potential?
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. The AutomationWorld article above provides some suggestions for comparing SCADA platforms. The suggestions include:
“…tools for HMI graphics that are easy to learn and let you become productive quickly; the ability to easily expand the system for facility changes and growing data needs; an open format such as SQL Server for data storage, which means you don’t need to buy a third-party package for data analysis; and the ability to interface with software and hardware from multiple vendors.”
If you evaluate your SCADA software and find that these criteria are not being met, it is time to seriously consider a change. And you may not like the cost of changing, but the opportunity cost of not changing is far greater, and changing to the right platform today will not only allow you to improve your production, but will make any additional or future projects faster, easier, and much less expensive.