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SCADA IoT Tug-of-War

Are You Making the Right Choice?

Rhetoric

IoT and IIoT

IoT, or IIoT for the purists living in the industrial automation space, is seen by many to be a rebadge or a new shiny coat of paint for things we have been doing for years. That is true in part, particularly for those who have been “smart” about managing devices. We now call these “things” smart connected devices, but we have been smart for a while, in part!

Typically, critical infrastructure has been managed by OT (Operation Technologies) for almost a generation now. Many are surprised at how long we have been able to keep some of these older systems operational with very very little down time. This tends to create a nervousness for some when thinking about changing to a new platform or more radically to shift to the new style of technology that newer IoT proports to be. Here, we call this “New IoT”, as opposed to rebadged old technology.

New IoT

So, is New IoT and SCADA the same thing? For many, SCADA currently meets the needs of what IoT offers in terms of device connectivity and operator features. New IoT offers new skins and the benefits of what Big Data enthusiasts have brought to the table over the last few years of flurry – better analytics and a more modern user interface. Those with SCADA experience are careful to respect what they have. They ask questions like; how stable and how scalable is the new stuff? It raises new questions like; why do I need SCADA if IoT provides what they are telling me? Of course, the devil is in the detail and using this cliché is embarrassing to quote, but true. To get to the point, there are some key factors to consider including historical pricing, new technology scalability and doing things we haven’t done with SCADA before.  

Key Factors

The industrial Automation industry is a giant. With mature software products like SCADA that “never” fail and with a price tag to match it, the angle for leveraging SCADA out of the equation is price. Some of the SCADA vendors realising this threat to their cash cow, now have low cost products in their suite of software products to offer to their industrial customers. Another angle is to shift to subscription models where the total cost is perceived to be less as it is amortised over a longer period of time. We expect to see as New IoT products are taken up (for example PTC ThingWorx) rather than traditional SCADA products being used for routine or  fringe area applications, New IoT will be used for everything non-critical. This will introduce a much different approach to managing assets and new devices will flow into homes and organisations at an accelerated rate.

The biggest benefits to New IoT technologies has been gifted to us by the global giants of technology ie google, amazon etc, with millions of users (clients), scalable server technology, built in redundancy and therefore increased availability and finally a plethora of developers finding new ways to build applications and new analytics every day. Due to the overwhelming consumption of new apps and the day to day tolerance of apps not always online, for non-mission critical functionality, somehow, we have learned to accept if it is not my car, I am ok with a flicker in the lights, a reboot every now and then and a power down reset may be required. Even better, if it saves you some money, who wouldn’t be up for that? This doesn’t suggest for a moment that IoT is unreliable, this simply addresses that the old story of highly available industrial software is an old story and is very narrow in its application for business.

Understanding where we have come from and what technology companies have been doing for the last few years provides context of what is happening now and what is likely to occur next. This legacy is a very strong bias. It’s like a rip tide and almost impossible to swim against.

What Next?

With New IoT technologies, if alarms, alerts, customisable skins and device connectivity comes out of the box, why invest time configuring SCADA to do the same thing? That’s right! No point. That is why slowly but surely SCADA will reduce its footprint and IoT technologies will take a strong foothold on all non-critical asset management. Why is this important to understand? Perhaps this is at the heart of why we are where we are today with smart tech but so many unconnected devices. I recall hearing about drink machines having an IP address 20 years ago. Why has it taken so long to get these drink machines online when we have known how to do this for so long? Price! Price of software, price of hardware, cost to implement and cost to maintain for life. Overall the value proposition has been wrong, because the products at our finger tips were only built for high end systems. What does New IoT really offer? It offers a new value proposition. This is arguably the most important thing to understand. To be agnostic, the argument is about the overlap of SCADA and IoT. Forget that. To be more certain, it is about where they don’t overlap that provides the clarity.

Feeling Uncertain?

Not sure about what you should use SCADA for? At least for the time being, stick with SCADA for mission critical. For everything else, it simply boils down to the cost of ownership, the value proposition. If you couldn’t afford to integrate it into SCADA before, then why start now? One thing has changed though, the value proposition for New IoT is not +10 years, so planning for a shorter and different type of yield requires a different skill.

While we are spending time defining what Big Data is, what IoT is and what about my current SCADA, the world is moving on with or without us. To get from where we are today to where we want to be tomorrow with a degree of certainty and a deterministic approach to outcomes, it is important we have a multi domain approach to transitioning to the new tech. For companies offering to help organisations with mission critical assets to manage, taking a “try and see” approach to new applications is probably not going to get past the front door, and nor should it.

Feeling uncertain? Many consumers of technology are very uncertain. Suppliers are desperate. Technologists are salivating at the idea of new things to learn and implement but many are unpractised. Taking a pragmatic approach to implementing new technologies hasn’t changed, not with Big Data and not with New IoT. Taking a system’s engineering approach to deployment takes the worry out of New IoT. Start small, start non-critical and start on areas where New IoT functionality is not already part of the bedded down and existing SCADA suite. Take an OT approach to deployment.