Is SCADA an outdated technology?

The industrial automation industry on the whole is very conservative. As consumers of automation in industry, we fully appreciate this fact when it comes to automation that affects our personal safety. In more recent times, this cautious approach to automation is creating new types of risks for those operating assets using SCADA. As each year passes without uplift, disaster looms closer and closer. What are some of the risks?
Ticking Time bomb


New tech has emerged, and it’s not IoT or IIoT that we speak of. IoT is not a replacement for SCADA, except in the simplest of applications and in most scenarios IoT and SCADA are complementary though IoT is mostly used on non-critical assets. Surprisingly, basic SCADA from 3 decades ago still operates today. Since then, a new generation of SCADA emerged and is used in manufacturing plants, heavy industry, building management, and virtually everywhere throughout the world. If we are not on at least this second generation of technology, we are fully exposed. Now some people enjoy the simpleness or the older technology and the familiarity that it brings. Similarly, some people enjoy driving antique cars, and there is nothing wrong with antique cars, however, antique cars have some challenges with today’s safety standards. Just don’t be in an accident. But consider this. The fastest touring car in the late 80s is slower than the average modern sports hatchback today. That’s out of the box, no modifications and at a fraction of the cost using present value.
As systems evolved through the 90’s, new functionality was added to old platforms as vendors struggle to keep their cash cows alive. This has produced very mixed results. Concatenation of new functionality to existing products without the opportunity to revisit fundamentals and change them, inhibits the software developers. In most cases you just can’t start again. Just to keep up, sometimes legacy products can be rendered as “next generation” software with new brochures and a face lift. Concatenation can easily become the norm for “major” functional uplifts but really, underneath, the core remains with its dependencies on the old technologies. That isn’t all bad, but perhaps if it remains constant for more than a decade it could be questioned.

What does next generation SCADA look like?

Highlighting a significant distinction in new-generation SCADA systems, these technologies revolve around object hierarchies for efficiently organizing data points and metadata. They don’t confine themselves to a flat file structure, as older systems do, limiting the definition to a single point. They offer boundless possibilities for expanding the fundamental structure without the need for bewildering customizations that can befuddle even the most skilled programmers. If the next-generation SCADA platform lacks this crucial functionality, it’s advisable to explore other options in your search.

In the past, when SCADA was the primary technology available (apart from perhaps using Basic or C), it had to be customized extensively to extend its capabilities beyond its original design. It was adapted to load production recipes, generate asset performance reports, and even autonomously control entire systems. SCADA evolved into a multifaceted tool, surpassing its initial scope. But why did we resort to this? Simply because we had no alternative. However, in the present era, we have numerous alternatives at our disposal. We no longer need to use SCADA in the same manner as before, and it might be appropriate to revert to its original role as the real-time operational management component of critical systems.

In contemporary times (post-2000), we should employ purpose-designed software that suits specific needs. This may involve stripping SCADA of unsuitable functions so it can effectively fulfill its intended role. So, what kinds of software can we employ today to handle the tasks we once attempted with SCADA?

  • Batch management.
  • Process historian and production reporting.
  • Analytics.
  • Asset performance management.
  • Production management.
  • Manufacturing execution systems.
  • Advanced process control.

And the list goes on. Essentially, this implies that SCADA should have fewer business applications, not more. However, the prospect of simplifying operational SCADA by removing complexities may appear daunting and risky. It involves evaluating numerous considerations. To embark on this journey, it’s advisable to begin by focusing on the potential benefits and advantages.

What are the advantages of upgrading outdated SCADA systems?

Upgrading to modern SCADA offers the same benefits as adopting other contemporary software systems that are not hindered by obsolete architectures. This is particularly relevant when considering the vulnerabilities inherent in aging operating systems. While segregating SCADA applications is a step toward enhancing cybersecurity, isolation can no longer serve as the sole default security strategy, as it has for decades. Therefore, systems must be current to increase their likelihood of detecting and avoiding threats while also aligning with the skills of a modern workforce. The support available for new SCADA systems platforms is a significant advantage that should not be underestimated.

In some instances, a straightforward evaluation may lead to the decision to replace the old SCADA entirely. Unfortunately, for most legacy systems, there’s no silver lining. Using the same technology for over two decades is an exceptionally long time, and by default it has reached the point where it simply must be replaced.

Why are we so cautious about OT systems?

The inclination to exercise extreme caution when contemplating the replacement of industrial software systems is driven by their fragile nature, the potential for sudden failures, and the accompanying unease they generate. Ironically, these reasons underscore the urgency for their replacement.

Contrary to what we witness in the “Terminator” movies, software systems lack independent consciousness. In the realm of industrial automation, when the environment is well-managed, encompassing the operating system and networks, these software systems can exhibit a high degree of determinism and reliability. This is, in part, why they have endured over time. Rigorous testing during their inception addressed issues related to confidence and repeatability. However, the introduction of poorly structured code can erode that confidence. It’s worth noting that we don’t apply such engineering practices to bridges and airplanes, yet for some reason, this has been tolerated in the realm of Industrial Automation systems engineering. Ultimately, it boils down to budgets and risk tolerance.

What is the greatest challenge to renew industrial software?

Understanding the historical context of how we ended up with aging SCADA systems sheds light on the need to reshape our perspective regarding SCADA as a renewing technological asset. In the past, and even more recently, we typically initiated projects with capital funding to implement new systems alongside new assets. However, when the physical assets continue to function, there is often insufficient funding to replace the control systems as they become integral to operations. Conversely, as individual assets are gradually upgraded and replaced, one item at a time, the software systems often remain untouched reducing transition risk. While the costs associated with upgrading these software systems may seem high when considered in isolation, when distributed across the entire asset base, they represent a relatively modest expense. Interestingly, replacing a single tangible asset is often perceived as carrying less risk than replacing a software asset that has the potential to impact the entire system.

What is the greatest threat to operational sustainability?

Systems that were implemented three decades ago have exceeded their intended lifespan for reasons unrelated to their reliability. Many of them operate on outdated, unsupported operating systems, preventing essential updates and cyber safety enhancements. While updates are eventually applied in response to critical events, they often come at significant cost and without stringent quality control, leading to new uncertainties.
However, a more concerning issue is the dwindling support for these 30-year-old systems. It’s increasingly challenging to find individuals, especially those commencing their careers, interested in servicing outdated software systems as a future. The next generation of professionals is generally more drawn to modern technology and innovative opportunities. As we approach this juncture, it becomes imperative to retire these old software systems while there are still individuals who understand their inner workings within the workforce. The time has arrived for next-generation SCADA systems, offering several advantages:

  • Enhanced interoperability.
  • Implementation of object hierarchies with instantiation capabilities.
  • Unified Development Environments that streamline development and enforce standards.
  • An opportunity to phase out legacy constraints and explore new possibilities.
  • Software selection tailored for specific purposes, rather than attempting one-size-fits-all adaptations.

Another threat to operational sustainability is the need to modify stable systems to accommodate new operational and business requirements. Evolving business drivers often necessitate asset reconfiguration or replacement to optimize asset performance. However, a mindset that inhibits change for the sake of stability can lead to underutilization of assets, diminishing their value over time. Today’s best practices surpass those of decades ago, highlighting the need to reassess all aspects of systems to eliminate constraints hindering peak asset performance. New requirements continuously demand more from existing assets, prompting the need to assess whether performance limits have been reached or if further improvements are possible before assets are repurposed.

What can we learn from the Industrial Automation Software Vendors?

The process of overhauling a SCADA system can be a costly endeavour, especially when the system includes custom code that goes beyond its standard capabilities. If modern SCADA systems don’t readily offer certain functionalities, it’s essential to question why that’s the case. When developing new products, why not consolidate all the innovative features previously achieved with custom programming into a single application? Keeping things simple significantly enhances reliability and maintainability without a doubt.
Software vendors in the industrial automation sector have attained their current status by being diligent about quality control and safeguarding their reputation. They’ve learned valuable lessons about what should be included in SCADA systems and what belongs in other software systems. The question is, has the industry been observant? Has it paid heed to these lessons and adapted accordingly? While we might grumble that automation vendors lag behind the times, perhaps it’s the user base that hinders vendors from taking significant leaps forward.
Over the past two to three decades, it has taken considerable effort to refine operational systems or devise workarounds to keep them operational. Letting go of years of hard work can be challenging, and we have indeed achieved remarkable feats. However, embracing change is the first step in reshaping our perspective on our entire technological journey. It’s difficult to discard a day’s work, let alone years of effort, in pursuit of a better solution. The silver lining is that the fundamental principles remain intact.
In the current landscape of new software development platforms, vendors enjoy greater flexibility than before. The focus has shifted toward functionality, interoperability, and performance. With the prevalence of cloud computing, interoperability reigns supreme, although it’s essential to tread carefully embracing a one-size-fits-all cloud-based solution as performance may be the first aspect to suffer, closely followed by the true cost of data.

Where do I start with renewing SCADA?

When faced with the imperative “alright, I acknowledge the need for action,” the initial question all too often becomes “what’s the cost of the new software?” However, beginning with software pricing tends to obscure the more significant underlying issues. The true hidden costs lie in the development and lifecycle management of engineering systems. While the choice of software remains a crucial factor, initiating discussions with software price tags is the wrong approach.

Opting for the wrong software can lead to a substantial business mistake, with ramifications lasting a minimum of five years. Implementing new systems and subsequently replacing them requires considerable time. The real costs are concealed within this process. Instead, the focus should be on the system’s lifecycle. Financing a project should be based on the anticipated lifespan of the software system, not just the assets it oversees. This approach should encompass both external and internal costs, support fees, internal quality expenditures, engineering efforts, reconfiguration, documentation, and standards management.

If the intention is to continue with a “set and forget” mindset for another three decades, it’s time to reconsider. This approach is no longer feasible as software lifecycles are dramatically shrinking due to shorter product development cycles and a broader range of options.

Recognising that the next generation of SCADA systems is already well-established should provide comfort to those accustomed to older systems. The truth is, regardless of our age, we are already generally open to periodically updating our corporate software systems. However, this philosophy isn’t consistently applied to maintaining industrial solutions that manage critical assets, often due to various apprehensions, like:

  • Fear of the risks associated with change.
  • Concerns about the timing of the transition including personal risks.
  • Perceived high expenses.
  • A focus on maintenance over replacement.
  • Distrust in the system’s reliability.
  • Apprehensions about the complexity of the transition.
  • Lack of team skills and confidence in external resources.
  • The belief that the current system is functioning adequately.

The sanctity of a well-managed Industrial Control System (ICS) is paramount and should not be underestimated. We do not propose hasty updates of ICSs with every minor vendor change. Systems Lifecycle Management (SLM) entails special considerations. Nevertheless, we advocate that SLM should be an ongoing process, with frequent contemplation and strategically planned events, rather than being reactive due to failure or delayed action. Excessive caution in embracing change, particularly with mission-critical systems, is now the riskiest course of action.
We have navigated transitions before. When we could no longer purchase kerosene for our heaters at the local garage, we adapted. When acquiring a horse and buggy for a trip to the grocery store to buy fresh milk and warm eggs became impractical, we found alternative means. Acting before options are exhausted may require courage, but it positions us ahead of impending changes. Wouldn’t you prefer to lead change rather than have it imposed upon you? If you are still operating on Gen 1 SCADA software, it’s time to make a move before the knowledge to maintain it disappears entirely. If you’re already on Gen 2 SCADA, are you actively embracing a Systems Lifecycle approach and planning for what comes next? You should be, as the pace of change in OT systems is accelerating.
While we may playfully critique the longevity of industrial automation software, the reality is that other software systems have not endured like this. SCADA has exceeded all expectations. In many instances, control devices have outlasted their projected product life, a testament to the remarkable performance of the Industrial Control Systems industry. Now is a crucial moment to phase out the old systems to preserve the industry’s reputation.
With operational risks poised to increase due to the constant evolution of systems that were historically stable with a “no-touch” approach, the demand is for improved systems engineering and comprehensive lifecycle support, not less. As systems become more dynamic and responsive to evolving business needs, yielding enhanced returns, the investment in personnel and technology supporting these systems is bound to rise. New technology is less likely to be “set and forget” like our older systems. Welcome to the era of industrial automation, where change is a constant and not a once-in-a-decade event.

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