The IT world has been undergoing a transition for many years from on-premise servers and applications to cloud-based software-as-a-service (SAAS) applications. Though the transition has not been underway as long for Operational Technology (OT) applications, this same movement is happening.
In this Emerson Automation Experts podcast, I’m joined by Emerson’s Tanner Erickson to discuss this transition for SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems and the advantages and disadvantages of comparing on-premise and cloud-based SCADA systems.
Visit the Zedi Cloud-Based SCADA Solutions section on Emerson.com for more on enabling remote view and control of your production operations.
Jim: Hi everyone! This is Jim Cahill with another Emerson Automation Experts podcast.
Today we’re going to get into the details of the differences between on-premise SCADA, or on-prem SCADA for short, and cloud-based SCADA. Since Emerson offers our customers both, we have many experts that are well-versed on all things SCADA-related.
I’d like to extend a warm welcome to Tanner Erickson who is Emerson’s Zedi Cloud Platform Senior Technology Product Manager – Thanks for joining us today Tanner!
Tanner: It’s great to be here Jim.
Jim: Can you tell us a bit about your current role and some background on your experience?
Tanner: Yes, of course. My current role at Emerson as you mentioned is a Senior Market and Product Manager for the Cloud-based SCADA platform. As a whole, I am responsible for understanding market trends and needs, determining the best market strategy, and setting the overall technology roadmap for delivering new products and technology to the world. Though our historical core focus is the upstream oil gas sector, our product development initiatives now span all industrial markets, with the aim of improving efficiencies and enabling better operational and business decisions through the power of technology.
Before coming to Emerson, I worked mainly in the energy industry, starting as a petroleum engineer and eventually moving into strategy, and technology roles. In the first 5 or 6 years of my career, I focused mainly on reservoir and field development for large and integrated operators in the upstream oil and gas sector and eventually moved into corporate planning and strategy. After obtaining an MBA at the University of Toronto, I worked as a Management Consultant on many interesting business strategies, operational efficiency, and technology transformation projects for large energy and resources clients in across North America. Most recently, before joining Emerson, I stepped into the public-service realm, managing the strategy development and operational planning for the regulatory agency here locally, the Alberta Energy Regulator. The AER’s mandate is to ensure the safe, efficient, orderly, and environmentally responsible development of hydrocarbon resources over their entire life cycle, and so this latest experience gave me a valuable perspective on balancing the needs of industry profitability, the public, and the environment. And finally, that brings me to today! Since starting in early 2020 with Emerson, I have been focused on all things related to cloud-based SCADA ever since.
Jim: That’s an interesting journey so far and it’s great you’re so well-versed in all things energy as well as strategy. It really brings all types of SCADA experience to the forefront of your career. So, let’s start out with a bit of a ‘level set’. Can you give us a brief historical look at SCADA – a sort of overview of where it started, where it’s gone, and where you think it’s going?
Tanner: Great idea Jim. SCADA stands for “Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition“, which in a nutshell is a control system architecture comprised of computers, networked data communications, and graphical user interfaces used for high-level supervision of machines and processes.
SCADA was initially developed in the early ’70s to be a universal means of remote access to a variety of local control modules, which could be from different manufacturers and allowing access through standard automation protocols.
Through the years, large SCADA systems have grown to become very similar to distributed control systems in function, while using multiple means of interfacing with the plant. They can control large-scale processes that can include multiple – and in our case, remotely located and disparate sites. It’s one of the most commonly used types of industrial control systems.
Like all technology, SCADA has evolved significantly since the first generation of systems, which were independent, proprietary systems, with another mainframe acting as the back-up for connection to the remote terminal sites in case of failure.
The first advancements came through transforming the information and command processing from a central unit to a distributed network, where each station was responsible for a particular task which improved resiliency and reduced costs. However, there were no considerations given to security or standardization at that point.
Subsequent iterations of SCADA focused on improving these aspects, using a ‘Networked’ systems approach. It can be spread across more than one LAN network and separated geographically using what is called a process control network (PCN).
Finally, today, the latest generation of SCADA is ‘Web or cloud-based’, as opposed to the historical on-premise based systems. The growth of the internet and industrial connectivity has led to implementing web-based technologies, allowing users to view data, exchange information, and control processes from anywhere in the world. Cloud systems use Internet browsers as the graphical user interface for the operators HMI. This simplifies the site-installation and enables users to access the system from any device that is internet connected, including mobile phones and tablets.
Jim: It’s really amazing to think of the historical segments of SCADA most of us, well some of us have already lived through! I started my career in the mid-80s working with ’70s vintage SCADA hardware on offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Those systems were a mass of hardware cards in giant cabinets. They were definitely not easy to troubleshoot! Tanner, now let’s get into the differences between on-prem versus cloud-based; can you please explain what you think the biggest differences are?
Tanner: For sure, the biggest difference really comes down to where the software and data is located, and who is typically responsible for the performance, maintenance, and control. On-prem SCADA houses the software and data at the asset-site, and the entire scope of the hardware, software, and architecture is owned and managed by the operator. Cloud-based SCADA on the other hand, runs off-of web-based applications, where its management is generally handled by the SCADA provider, who also takes on ownership and operation of the machines, servers, and software.
Jim: Okay, that’s great; thanks for clarifying those differences. It’s really helpful I think to realize what is best for an organization is really based on the actual need. That makes total sense. So let’s talk about some of the pros and cons of each type of system now based on, let’s say your-sized operation, that could logically go with either system as a good fit. What would be the ‘deal breakers’ of each, and what would be some of the areas you could say would benefit the most from each type?
Tanner: For sure. It’s important to note first that even though Cloud-based SCADA was developed after the on-prem type, both have their own advantages and disadvantages and should be selected carefully based on the application, scope, and business strategy. What it comes down to is what level of control and ownership is required from the business of their SCADA system, and where the assets are located.
Starting with control, this is where the on-prem system is very attractive for businesses who are keen on managing their own system. By owning the devices running the software and storing data, and having them physically within reach, a business can decide and act on their maintenance, upgrade, and data storage prerogatives. Cyber-security is the sole responsibility of the operator who may find comfort in the fact their data lives on a server, in their own office.
However, the downside to having all that control is that you have to maintain all of the hardware, architecture, and software, which if done poorly can translate to a much higher cost, risk, and obsolescence. Typically, IT management is not the core value-adding function of an industrial business, and therefore many companies choose to forgo the additional expense of systems and people to maintain them and instead gravitate towards a cloud-based system.
On the flip side, the biggest Cloud-based SCADA advantage, as I have alluded to, is the outsourcing of all hardware, software, and security ownership and management responsibilities. The cloud-based SCADA provider is responsible for all the maintenance, data back-up, and continual improvements. This allows the business to focus on their main business, while reducing costs, personnel requirements, and risk exposure.
Overall, On-prem SCADA is generally very conducive to businesses who have the resources and will to manage their systems, and operate assets that are generally located in close proximity and of high sophistication, such as a refinery or power generation plant. Cloud-based systems are ideal for operators of multiple disparate assets spread over distance, and for business who would like to outsource their SCADA management functions to a trusted 3rd party who can deliver evergreen improvements to functionality and easily scale with expanding scope of operations.
Jim: So how does on-prem versus cloud-based SCADA compare with respect to security – is one more secure than the other or is it all an equal playing field?
Tanner: That depends; if you have an on-prem system you likely, or hopefully have a team of people whose security is their entire focus – every single day. So, let’s also expect they are really great at their jobs and stay of top of all the most current potential threats, viruses and have a perfect business resiliency plan in place. Large companies have security departments that can handle this very well.
If you don’t have the expertise in house of a true security department that has a proven record, then I would say cloud-based is the way to go; as an example Emerson’s Zedi Cloud-Based Platform runs on Microsoft Azure; and Microsoft has over 3500 experts that completely focus on security – that’s pretty impressive!
Jim: This has been such a pleasure to learn more about all the differences of on-prem SCADA and cloud-based SCADA. Tanner, it’s great that Emerson offers both; because to your point, the decision really needs to be taken carefully on what best aligns with a company’s goals and what they can support best.
If anyone has any questions you can reach Tanner directly at Tanner.Erickson@emerson.com. And that’s E-R-I-C-K-S-O-N. Or, follow the links I’ve added in the transcript.
Thanks for sharing your insights with us today, Tanner!
Tanner: It’s been a pleasure… thanks Jim.
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