One of today’s hottest buzzwords in the world of computing and information technology is ‘cloud computing’. With many large and well-known companies adopting cloud-computing concepts, it is becoming clear that this may be something more than a passing fad.
As industrial enterprises seek greater opportunities for data management and integration, cloud-based solutions are one of many on the table. As with any new innovation, there are certainly pros and cons, and when dealing with something like process control, there can be some very real concerns.
What is the Cloud?
First, let’s take a moment to define exactly what we are discussing. What exactly is “cloud computing”? In very simple terms, cloud computing involves utilizing a number of different technologies to achieve a system of sharing or restricting access to a particular collection of resources. In application, cloud computing involves networking large groups of remote servers to allow for the centralized storage of and online access to data.
Cloud computing has already proven to be useful enough to justify millions of dollars of capital investment from very successful companies like Microsoft and Google. Smaller companies are already reaping benefits as well. Things get a bit more difficult, however, when considering the notion of remotely monitoring and controlling sensitive devices and proprietary processes in cloud-based systems. After all, a large part of our infrastructure – including oil pipelines, power utilities, water treatment plants and mass transit systems – is controlled by SCADA software.
Are we comfortable putting these processes in something as ubiquitous as the cloud? As the introduction of this article suggests, there are many perceived benefits and risks to putting SCADA systems in the cloud.
Many of the perceived risks revolve around the sensitive data that could be available to malicious parties. Additionally, there are concerns that the actual operation of these essential systems could be vulnerable to attack, which could be devastating. Many of these concerns are more closely related to what information should be included in the cloud rather than whether or not the cloud itself is secure.
While security concerns are certainly valid – as they have always been – there are some undeniable befits to cloud-based SCADA, including:
- More cost-effective subscription-based pricing for smaller companies that may not otherwise be able to afford a SCADA system
- Enhanced scalability for large or growing organizations
- Lower cost of implementation and maintenance
- Greater accessibility
- Greater ability to collaborate
- Easy and affordable upgrades or add-ons
Many other risks and benefits can be listed, but the question is not really about whether or not cloud-based SCADA is a good idea – it is about whether cloud-based SCADA is a good idea for you and your organization. The major questions now revolve around how much control should be distributed through the cloud. Many engineers will insist that control be limited to local PLCs, and cloud-based information should be read-only. Others may suggest that control should be distributed as well.
There are no right or wrong answers at this point. It is fairly clear that the perceived benefits of cloud-based SCADA will outweigh the perceived risks – and probably rightly so. There is no reason that SCADA systems should not evolve to take advantage of the latest technology as they always had.
As smart devices and sensors evolve and become more affordable, more businesses are going to want to automate their processes. The subscription-based pricing of hosted SCADA software will make it accessible to organizations that otherwise may have been unable to afford it. This will allow smaller companies to begin to compete in the marketplace in ways that were impossible before. The industrial workplace is changing worldwide, and cloud-based SCADA is one way that change is being realized.