Automation SCADA

SCADA Is Changing The Game

EP Editorial Staff | May 30, 2024

SCADA leverages OT data for monitoring and control, and a major part of digital transformation is getting OT data out to the rest of the organization. Digital transformation must be built from the plant floor up, on the foundation of an effective SCADA system.

Transformed by pandemic needs, today’s SCADA systems have become a gateway to a new level of system monitoring, control, and/or maintenance/reliability.

By Travis Cox, Inductive Automation

The pandemic and government-mandated shutdowns had a significant impact on industrial organizations. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of staying connected to our industrial processes not only within the factory but remotely. It accelerated the demand for data and, for most organizations, was the catalyst for digital transformation. 

The biggest question many organizations faced was whether their SCADA system was ready for transformation. The most obvious requirement was the ability to remotely see and control their process so operators and managers could stay connected from home. For some, this meant setting up VPNs, VNC servers, remote desktops, providing company laptops, purchasing additional SCADA client licenses, and installing modern SCADA systems.

No matter what kind of organization or industry you’re in, you need to have a strong, modern SCADA system as a foundation for digital transformation. Why is SCADA so important to digital transformation? You’ve probably heard the saying, “Data is king.” Most of the data that we need for digital transformation is at the OT level, which is where SCADA lives. SCADA leverages OT data for monitoring and control, and a major part of digital transformation is getting OT data out to IT and to the rest of the organization. Rather than top-down, digital transformation must be built from the plant floor up, on the foundation of an effective SCADA system.

To meet the needs of today’s world, SCADA needs to be based on open standards, integrated with OT and IT, inherently secure, and deployed through modern practices. The days of siloed or closed systems are behind us, as they don’t work for today’s connected world.

The required capabilities of SCADA systems can be broken into five key areas:

• Distributed architectures and edge technologies
• Data modeling and UNS
Visualization and dashboards
Leveraging the cloud.

Let’s start with distributed architectures and edge technologies. SCADA architectures today look very different. The architecture decouples SCADA from devices, providing a more robust, scalable, and secure architecture. Let’s say you have ten Modbus devices that you want to connect to SCADA. You can deploy a single edge gateway, hardware, or software solution with support of Modbus and MQTT Sparkplug to push the polling closer to the PLC.

You can then poll more information, potentially at faster rates, and publish the values as they change to a central MQTT server. The SCADA system can connect and subscribe to the MQTT server to get the data instead of directly connecting to the end devices. Plus, data can be cached at the edge when disconnected from the network, ensuring you don’t lose any information. This is an incredibly important step for future-proofing your SCADA system. As you acquire new sensors or upgrade equipment that supports MQTT Sparkplug, SCADA will immediately gain access to that data without having to know about the end device. This is a true plug-and-play architecture. Not to mention, additional systems can connect and subscribe to the same data that SCADA is accessing in the MQTT server.

This new architecture uses MQTT, a lightweight publish/subscribe protocol that enables message-oriented middleware architectures. This is not a new concept in the IT space; Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) has long been used to integrate applications over a bus-like infrastructure. MQTT Sparkplug is an open-source specification hosted at the Eclipse Foundation ( that defines the format of the industrial data being transported over MQTT. These open standards allow interoperability of hardware and software solutions.

Data Modeling And UNS

Today, it’s all about democratization of data. SCADA has always been a big data consumer. However, today organizations are thinking about data differently. Instead of thinking about what data my SCADA system requires, it is important to think about what data my business requires. Then you can extend that thought into standardizing what you want your data to look like across the entire organization.

For example, let’s say we have extruder machines at different factories. It is possible there are differences in these machines from different PLCs, data formats, and even different process variables. It is important to ask, “How should we model extruder machines for our business?” That exercise pays off when we want to start leveraging analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to gain insights into our data enterprise wide. This is where the concept of data modeling and unified namespace (UNS) comes into play. 

A data model organizes data elements and standardizes how the data elements relate to one another. A data model explicitly determines the structure of data. The whole purpose of a data model is to provide context to the data, such as understanding where the data comes from, asset information, engineering units, and expected and desired ranges. A UNS acts as a centralized repository of all data collected from sensors, IIoT devices, machines, robotic solutions, and other system components, as well as all its context provided by the data model. Basically, the UNS becomes the single source of truth for all data and information in a business. 

By leveraging edge technologies, data modeling, and open standards, such as MQTT Sparkplug, SCADA becomes more powerful and robust than ever before. Plus, data gets modeled properly from OT, defined at the edge as the single source of truth, and put into open formats that bridge the gap between OT and IT. There is no need to write code or map data into business systems.

Visualization And Dashboards

The next area that has undergone massive transformations is the visualization of data. The pandemic has forced organizations to figure out how to get data to people in the factory and remotely. This requires SCADA systems that leverage modern technologies and new software licensing models that are fundamentally unlimited. 

As with all of services we use in our personal lives, SCADA is using the same HTML5 language that fundamentally opens access to data since it is available to any device that supports that technology. Today, that means PCs, smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, and many other devices. Even smart refrigerators can open HTML5 applications. For SCADA, this shifts the thinking to, “What data do different users in my organization need?” Ultimately, you can build dashboards and present data easily to anyone anywhere. This allows more people to stay connected and receive relevant data.

Smartphones are incredible pieces of technology that have an amazing number of built-in sensors such as GPS, camera, accelerometer, and Bluetooth. Applications can easily be made available to web browsers and smartphones at the same time. However, with smartphones, these applications can gain access to these sensors, unlocking significant opportunities. Imagine using the GPS to automatically switch to the appropriate screen as the user walks around the plant or to tag a location when entering in data. Imagine being able to place barcodes in strategic areas that users can scan to acquire information such as machine manuals and SOPs (standard operating procedures). Imagine being able to take pictures or stream video of a process to a corporate support team for remote troubleshooting. The possibilities are endless and these technologies are shaping how SCADA is used today.


The more connected an organization is, the more emphasis there is on security. It is vital to secure all connections in your organization through encryption, such as TLS. This is true for OPC UA, MQTT, and HTTPS applications. However, legacy devices and PLCs use non-encrypted communications. Edge plays a big role in securing these endpoints by separating out communication to the devices and communication to SCADA or business systems on different networks.

On the application side, most organizations already use cloud applications such as email, document sharing, and customer tracking. These applications use single sign-on (SSO) with existing corporate credentials and allow access to all applications in one place. This is possible through trusted federated identity technologies such as SAML and OpenID Connect, which can be used with SCADA. Instead of having shared accounts, each person can easily log in to gain access to the data they need securely. These systems can verify identity through two-factor authentication (2FA) which requires credentials and an additional step, such as a PIN sent to their phone. Using this technology allows users to seamlessly and securely obtain data from different applications.

Leveraging The Cloud

The final area SCADA has changed is integration with cloud technologies, such as databases, data lakes, machine learning, analytics, and artificial intelligence. The cloud offers many opportunities. The focus is on data and providing access. We can be talking about hundreds of thousands or millions of data points. That amount of data can present challenges with storage and retrieval and can be very expensive to have on-premises from a computing and maintenance perspective. The cloud provides numerous databases, deep storage, and data lakes that make it easy and cost-effective for long-term storage of all your data. The cloud provides instant availability, reliability, and scalability without the headache of maintenance or local infrastructure. 

Once the data is in a cloud platform, such as Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, or IBM Cloud, you can start leveraging tools that turn the data into useful information. The cloud becomes an augmentation of your on-premises solutions, especially with SCADA. Leveraging MQTT Sparkplug, it is easier than ever to get data into these cloud platforms without writing any code. Once data is there and stored with context, think about the possibilities of slicing and dicing the data in various analytic tools or overlaying data from multiple sites into a single dashboard. You can leverage such things as machine-learning algorithms and tools to tune processes, predict machine failures, and for forecasting. 

Lots of organizations are building cloud HTML5 dashboards that make it easier than ever to get data to people securely without the headaches of VPNs or remote desktops. Plus, you can aggregate data from your entire enterprise together into a single pane of glass. This truly takes SCADA to the next level as you unlock the potential of your data.

SCADA is not just SCADA anymore. The pandemic has forced a new way of thinking. Data is vital, and the true power of today’s SCADA is the ability to get access to data, move that data to the people who needs it, and be a conduit for getting insight into that data through analytics, dashboards, and machine learning. That’s why organizations everywhere are taking small steps to realize the benefits of these technologies today.

Travis Cox is Chief Technology Evangelist at Inductive Automation, Folsom, CA ( Cox builds relationships with industrial professionals to foster innovation and raise awareness of industry trends, modern technologies, open standards, and the many possibilities of the Ignition platform. 


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