The changing SCADA landscape

Trihedral’s President, Glenn Wadden reviewed the history and future technology trends driving SCADA software development in his executive keynote at VTScadaFest 2023.

The modern supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems that society relies on to manage critical infrastructure—from air traffic control to municipal water supplies—have their roots in more than 50 years of technology evolution that shows no sign of slowing.

The record-setting number of attendees at this year’s fifth VTScadaFest were treated to a time-traveling tour of that landscape (including a peek into its future) by Glenn Wadden, president of VTScada by Trihedral, a Delta Group company. Trihedral hosted this week-long training, education, and networking event the week of March 27, 2023 at Loews Portofino Bay Resort located at Universal Orlando.

The modern SCADA era was made possible with the 1971 introduction of the microprocessor by Intel, Wadden began. “It set the stage for programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to replace relay panels.” By the early 1980s, a young Wadden was working with state-of-the-art Rockwell Automation PLCs that packed 256 bytes (yes, bytes!) of memory. Every project required custom code. Even then, the young programmer realized that “this won’t scale well.”

The advent of something resembling modern SCADA software dates to the mid-1980s and really took off with the introduction of Windows 3.1 by Microsoft in 1992. “It changed the game, bringing drag-and-drop user interfaces to our domain,” Wadden said. Next was the popularization of TCP/IP networking technologies that allowed SCADA systems to span multiple computers and synchronize their operations. “We started with 300 baud modems, but everything quickly got cheaper and faster,” Wadden recalled.

“Moore’s law lowered the cost of what could be monitored, and we saw soaring I/O counts, ultimately spawning the Industrial IoT,” Wadden added. “Lots of cheap I/O meant booming volumes of data, with tag counts regularly numbering in the tens and hundreds of thousands.”

Alarms ascendant
Fast forward to today, and Wadden sees control rooms fading in importance, with alarms providing a primary means of managing operations. “Routine operations are automated as a matter of course, and it’s only the exceptions that require attention, with the system drawing the human operator directly to the relevant displays.”

Virtual machines and cloud environments allow SCADA users to spin up new apps quickly, even on remote hardware. Meanwhile, cyber criminals are growing in capability. “They’re getting really good, really scary,” Wadden said.

Another current frontier of SCADA development is removing “configuration bottlenecks,” Wadden added. This led Trihedral to pioneer on-line application development by multiple concurrent editors and make effective use of templates, import tools, and modular code. “Software is also getting much bigger,” Wadden said. “VTScada, for instance, is now two million lines of code.”

With systems growing in scope and scale, applications must be properly configured and documented. “Now more than ever, technical debt is an issue—shortcuts will cost dearly in the long run,” Wadden explained. He noted how the often-underappreciated application version control utility that is built into VTScada can help manage change by recording what system edits were made when and by whom, and even allowing users to rewind their systems to any previous version.

Additionally, Wadden believes that as more and more systems bring the enterprise together, artificial intelligence has “really cool and interesting potential,” to see patterns in massive amounts of data that humans cannot. “The graphical user interface will not be at the center, but data gathering will still be key. AI will tell you what to do.”

Sprint releases
In the course of the keynote address, Wadden also discussed how the company releases enhancements to its VTScada software platform. He noted that the typical industry practice of saving up new functionality for the next major release has long been abandoned. Instead, Trihedral continues to release updated versions every two weeks, reflecting the company’s sprint development processes and commitment to cyber security.

“It’s just the way we roll,” Wadden said, explaining to the assembled users that there’s no need to install every new release as it comes out. Rather, users should have a routine update cycle to ensure that they benefit from ongoing new features, bug fixes, and security enhancements. However, he invites you to update to any interim version “if it includes a new feature or functionality of particular interest to you.”

While reviewing some of the significant updates made to VTScada since the last VTScadaFest, Wadden pointed out that backward compatibility, something the company has preserved since VTScada’sfirst release over 35 years ago, is of particular importance. “We spend a lot of time and effort asking ourselves ‘How do we advance without breaking what’s already there?’”

See VTScadaFest Highlights

Author: Keith Larson – Keith Larson is group publisher responsible for Endeavor Business Media’s Industrial Processing group, including Automation World, Chemical Processing, Control, Control Design, Food Processing, Pharma Manufacturing, Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Processing and The Journal.

Originally Published: The changing SCADA landscape | Control Global