Cloud solutions enable remote work productivity, without replacing SCADA

Use SCADA to best advantage, and the way it’s meant to be used

By Eric Fidler August 4, 2020

Not long ago, operations and facilities engineers went to work each day, logged into the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, and went about their business of viewing production status and alarms to manage assets or facilities. They adjusted setpoints and dispatched technicians to make sure that production remained within targeted parameters.

SCADA is an integrated system that directly controls a company’s production operations, a function critical to any company. It traditionally is isolated on an operations network, separate from business IT networks, to reduce the risk of unauthorized access while connecting it with the control and automation assets. This isolation was necessary to avoid risk to their revenue stream.

In early 2020, COVID-19 forced some tough decisions in this regard. COVID-19 and the resulting stay-at-home orders for non-essential businesses forced companies to make risky decisions to maintain operations continuity. Engineers using SCADA systems were no longer able to go to an office to access the company’s isolated operations network. IT and operations network professionals scrambled to come up with plans to enable access while executives grappled with whether to accept the risk of doing so.

Security approaches that most had gotten comfortable with for their IT networks suddenly seemed risky to use for the operations network. They didn’t have much choice. No one knew how long the orders would stay in place and operations had to have a way to continue to manage facilities. COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, the potential for similar orders in the future, and changing behavior, as well as the concerns and preferences of the workforce, all conspired to make accommodations for remote operations part of the new normal for operations executives.

As executives come to terms with remote workers, concerns about employee productivity are inevitable. Although it may be natural to think their immediate concerns are whether remote employees maintain focus on work, the larger concern quickly becomes whether remote employees have what they need to be productive.

SCADA challenges

Opening SCADA up for outside access remains a highly debated decision. In addition, other enterprise employees need information SCADA contains as well, including for oversight, management and planning. SCADA wasn’t designed to meet their needs. They are often frustrated by formats and presentations they don’t understand.

Further, widening access to SCADA compounds the risks involved, and therefore heightens the terms of the debate. Some SCADA providers offer an optional web server add-on to provide secure visibility, but this modality doesn’t address the format and presentation issues involved.

The truth is that, given the risks involved, SCADA must be securely isolated on operations networks. Network isolation presents challenges to those personnel working remotely, yet isolation needs to remain the practice.

Employees working at home can work more efficiently when furnished with a series of reporting dashboards that display simple visuals on process variables and operation status and output. Required actions can be initiated with a text or phone call to other employees, accelerating performance improvement in these difficult times.

Further, in many companies, SCADA has inadvertently become the repository for production data. While originally intended to support performance of specific tasks related to production control and visibility, it’s ended up becoming a collection point for data.

Remotely located subject matter experts and production engineers needing this information struggle to access SCADA data. Once the raw data is obtained it must be manipulated each time to provide the required performance insights.

Testimony from operators in recent months reinforces their struggles with remotely managing operations with SCADA. They dislike exposing their operational network externally.

A better way

Cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions are lower-cost, accessible-from-anywhere alternatives to either building or licensing tools hosted in a company’s own infrastructure. SaaS benefits apply in production operations as well. Solutions exist today that combine cloud with edge processing that are quick to launch, scale and manage at a lower cost than traditional approaches.

Cloud solutions are designed from the ground up with secure accessibility in mind. Well-designed solutions have responsive pages that adapt to a variety of screen sizes. They have connectivity when and where they need to. Security of cloud solutions has been a concern since their introduction. Most solutions have strong encryption and other capabilities, to meet or beat the level of security associated with financial institutions, and to comply with company requirements.

Rather than serving up raw or cryptic tag data, data brought into cloud solutions typically has context, so users can understand what is there and focus on what interests them. Cloud solutions include modern user interfaces with built-in analytical tools and data visualization capabilities. Production accountants, production geologists, maintenance engineers, management and others can view current or historical data, at any time.

A cloud solution such as that described improves worker productivity while leaving SCADA to do the job it was meant to do. SCADA and a cloud/edge solution together gives employees in different roles access to what they need in ways that make the most sense to them. Although operations employees that use SCADA may also come to prefer cloud capabilities to monitor operations and know when they need to take action in the SCADA system, other employees will prefer the cloud information presentation and ability to easily use preferred tools for analysis. This parallel system approach delivers the benefits of cloud and software as a service without disrupting existing operations.

What to look for

Some key areas to investigate or consider when evaluating cloud/edge solution providers to improve productivity of remote employees.

  • Speed and ease of deployment: Cloud setup, edge deployment, edge setup, and management should be as easy as possible.
  • Choose a partner that has professional services, including a framework to plan and manage deployment with high quality and repeatability.
  • A solution that is configurable is preferred to those requiring programming. This reduces initial setup and testing, while decreasing long-term costs required to sustain the solution through future changes.
  • A solution should have easy-to-use tools to manage software updates and configuration changes with minimum risk over the solution’s lifetime.
  • Select partners with an open, standards-based approach to integrating their platform with existing assets. This should include a combination of operations technology (e.g. automation controllers, sensors) and information technology standards.

Something new

Taking on something new is the last thing companies want to do right now. But with the right cloud/edge solution partner, they can expedite deployment, minimize disruption to operations, and improve productivity quickly by empowering employees to do their work remotely without having to struggle with SCADA.

Here are three things to look for in a fast-tracked solution:

  • An open platform, with technology to ensure it is secure, that delivers timely data smoothly into the hands of personnel in a manner they are comfortable using.
  • Right data, to the right people, at the right time, to speed decision making.
  • Professional services with strategic planning for implementation, and platform features to manage a scaled deployment, to help you execute quickly and easily.
  • Breadth of solutions to maximize ROI.

With the right partner, results can be seen in weeks, not months.

Original content can be found at Oil and Gas Engineering.

Author Bio: Eric Fidler is founder and chief strategy officer, Lavoro Technologies.