SCADA vs THE IIoT: What are the considerations and why do they matter?

Photo Courtesy of MOBILTEX

When it comes to complex engineering problems, particularly in industrial sectors like oil and gas, power generation, or water and wastewater management, decisions need to be made based on the best data available and traditionally Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems have been the primary source of data for engineers.

Today many engineers augment or expand their SCADA program using Industrial Internet-of-Things (IIoT) devices to obtain the remote monitoring data they need to do their job effectively. Some are even replacing their old SCADA systems entirely.

While the IIoT promises engineers more data for their decisions (usually provided by relatively low-cost sensor nodes) and streamlined functions in general, it’s important to understand the four major differences between the two methods of data acquisition:

  • Cost vs. affordability
  • Complexity vs. simplicity
  • Alerts vs. analysis
  • Data for the field vs. data for the team

Engineers serve as an important point-of-contact between field operation teams and your management or executive teams. As such, they have the crucial job of optimizing asset performance to help ensure production is being maximized as cost-effectively as possible while capturing the most complete data possible that is truly valuable in order to make informed decisions.

Cost vs. Affordability

SCADA systems are substantial and robust—bulky even. RTUs, PLCs and plenty of other networking and communications equipment is often involved, and the costs for all of it typically gets absorbed into capital budgets during the engineering and buildout phase. Then there’s the manpower required; many medium and large industrial players have entire internal teams dedicated to planning and managing SCADA systems.

IIoT remote monitoring systems typically use a different business model known as Software as a Service — aka SaaS — which charges a monthly fee to subscribers per user, asset, or data point. CAPEX funds are still required to purchase and install hardware but with a portion of the capital costs moved to operational expenses OPEX in the form of services. In some cases, tens if not hundreds of thousands of CAPEX dollars can be saved by transitioning to SaaS programs.

Engineers aren’t accountants though; data accessibility is what engineers are ultimately after. The right remote monitoring systems provide can provide accurate, reliable data immediately while leveraging their OPEX budget.

Complexity vs. Simplicity

To be fair, SCADA systems have been around for decades and spent much of that time being truly useful, so plenty of new components and features have been developed. Typically additions and expansions just kept on coming year after year, decade after decade. This leads to enormous SCADA systems trying to deliver data about every asset and operations process and interfaces that are not as flexible and intuitive when compared against IIoT web-based UX/UI. When features start getting layered upon one another, the system and the interface can quickly devolve into a kludgy quagmire. And then extracting data without the help of experts or paid applications is an almost impossible task.

However, when it comes to modern remote monitoring systems, simplicity is the name of the game. IIoT devices and systems are deliberately built around lightweight and low-maintenance design principles. They give engineers what they want, easy access to high-quality aggregate data that can be analyzed for trends, enhance business intelligence, and make informed decisions. They also eliminate the significant complexities of software upgrades (enhancements just appear on the next log-in!) and maintaining a private communications network for SCADA systems versus simply using a public network and a just browser in some cases to connect to a web-based interface.

Alerts vs. Analysis

SCADA systems were originally intended to provide real-time visibility and control over distributed infrastructure at a given complex or, at most, across a small geographic region. HMIs and control interfaces and alarm systems are primarily concerned with real-time events and notifying personnel about immediate problems. They weren’t meant for outputting the sizable amount of data they collect for analysis, an essential function for finding optimization trends that can lead to a strong ROI. There are applications available for this job, but require more investment in the on-premise software suites.

That’s part of what makes modern remote monitoring so attractive to engineers; they’re purposely designed for gathering data and making it available for analysis. Unlike SCADA networks that use machine protocols from the equipment all the way to the HMI, remote monitoring technology usually translates machine languages into useful open internet protocols almost immediately. In fact, as IIoT devices continue to be deployed in the field, differing machine languages are disappearing, replaced by devices using standardized protocols right at the source – streamlining accessibility even further.

Data for the Field vs. Data for the Team

SCADA is an inherently response-driven system meant to alert personnel to faults and warnings and provide site managers direct control and oversight of equipment. It’s very much a “real-time” system, and other functional areas of organizations weren’t meant to make use of SCADA data some access can be a significant challenge.

By contrast, using remote monitoring platforms and IIoT devices makes it possible to avoid this complication without additional implementation and subscription costs often associated with a commercial solution. IIoT devices make it incredibly easy to get large data sets out of your equipment and directly into analytical tools like:

  • equipment optimization software,
  • accounting applications,
  • business intelligence dashboards, and
  • Excel, other spreadsheets, and CSV files.

And the Winner is…

No one, because, unsurprisingly, there are use cases for both and this is a complex topic.

Remote monitoring systems built on IIoT devices no doubt have a bright future ahead of them, but SCADA systems are still valuable in many industries and for many operators.

Remember, the engineer’s goal is to make the best decisions about production assets as possible to maximize their performance. To do that, they need ready access to reliable data about their equipment, their conditions, their environments, and more. For businesses requiring more operational agility it may make sense to invest in an entirely IIoT-driven system as they’re simpler and easier to manage with limited cash flow and less manpower. Even large legacy operations can earn a quick win for incremental value by taking a blended approach to monitoring by augmenting data collection systems with IIoT devices that provide easy access to high-quality data regarding critical and peripheral systems alike.

The MOBILTEX portfolio of cathodic protection and pipeline integrity remote monitoring units (RMUs) present an exceptional opportunity for corrosion and asset integrity engineers within organizations big and small to climb on board the Industry 4.0/IIoT bullet train. Unlike SCADA systems which are customized for each application, the turnkey approach of the CorTalk portfolio of remote monitoring solutions can give engineers and other stakeholders access to critical information regarding their corrosion protection systems quickly and easily via the intuitive CorView user cloud platform and the latest API integrations, with enterprise level security and scalability.