Applying Internet Technology to Utility SCADA Systems

By Steven M. Brown
Associate Editor

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Wider dissemination of utility SCADA data is becoming a necessity. Simple Web browser-based technology is making it possible to open SCADA systems like never before.

The application of Internet and intranet technology has had a profound impact on the way work is carried out in just about every industry. The challenge of better, faster, cheaper work flows is being met, and it’s due, at least in part, to the adoption of Web-based tools. Since better, faster, cheaper is the prevailing mantra in a changing electric utility industry landscape, it comes as no surprise that Internet technology is being applied to a number of utility operations. Billing systems, customer information systems, outage management applications and geographic information systems have been among the first of the utility operations to get a boost from Web-based efficiencies, and now it seems that supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems are the next in line to benefit from the unique advantages provided by Internet technology.

Time was when only a handful of operators within the utility organization had access to SCADA-derived information, but times have changed. An increasing number of employees, both within and outside of the traditional utility operational environment, are demanding SCADA data. As the industry further evolves, the need for a more complete and widespread view of SCADA information will no doubt become even more crucial. In a paper presented at the DistribuTECH 2000 Conference and Exhibition in Miami this past spring, John Camilleri, a project engineer at ALSTOM Energy Management and Markets (EMM), elaborated on that fact, noting that, “Regardless of whether a utility business is regulated or not, open access to its SCADA system information is becoming a need rather than a want.” Camilleri wrote that the way to open the utility SCADA system is to replace the operator’s console of old with a standard Web browser. “Web browsers are typically available throughout the enterprise, and this technology offers one of the easiest ways to access information.”

As utilities begin to realize this need for a wider dissemination of SCADA data, industry vendors are answering the call and supplying SCADA data viewing capabilities based on an Internet/intranet framework. ALSTOM EMM, GE Harris Energy Control Systems, ABB Network Management and Open Systems International, among others, have all developed and are currently marketing systems that allow for a much easier and much wider dispersal of SCADA information than has previously been possible. The engines driving these applications are the public Internet and private corporate intranets.

SCADA Opens Up

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It’s probably not entirely correct to say that utilities are just now realizing the need for a wider distribution of SCADA information. Until recently, however, it simply wasn’t feasible to open up a SCADA system due to cost, strain on the underlying energy management system (EMS), and security concerns. Emerging Web-based SCADA viewing technologies are answering those concerns, making what was once cost-prohibitive very little of a concern at all from a dollars-and-cents point of view.

The SCADA Management Platform (SMP) from ALSTOM EMM is one of the new breed of network-based SCADA systems that aim to make Web-based SCADA a reality. Brent Brobak, a corporate engineer with ALSTOM EMM, points out that browser-based systems such as SMP alleviate many of the concerns utilities have with wider access to SCADA information. “In the past, the conventional wisdom was that if you wanted a view into your SCADA information, you had to go to the EMS and pull the data directly off that system,” Brobak said. “That was the only way to view into the SCADA system. Now people are taking the approach of opening up the SCADA system with normal Web browsers.”

Brobak pointed out that using Web server technology to support this information retrieval has two major benefits. “First of all,” he said, “anybody with a PC can access it. Second, it doesn’t require you to put a major load on your EMS. It’s one process to transfer data from the EMS, then everyone views that data from the Web server. Before, when groups of people wanted access to the SCADA information, it was either cost-prohibitive or performance-prohibitive on the system. The browser-based approach is also more secure, since casual users only have access to the Web server, not the EMS.”

The term “cost-prohibitive” often serves as a convenient scapegoat for companies averse to technological advancement, but in the case of accessing SCADA data, “cost-prohibitive” means something. While a growing number of utility personnel certainly could benefit from access to SCADA information, pulling that information from UNIX-based EMS usually means setting up operator workstations running an X Window system. It’s a costly process that goes a long way toward explaining the exclusivity associated with SCADA data distribution. With Web-based access to SCADA data, the workstation is replaced by a standard desktop PC and the X Window system is replaced by a modern Web browser running a JAVA applet. The advancements are a godsend for operational personnel who wish to push valuable SCADA data out into the enterprise.

Fernando Saavedra works as EMS project manager at the Mid-America Interconnected Network (MAIN), one of 10 electric reliability councils that make up the North American Reliability Council. Saavedra had long sought a solution that would allow MAIN to share SCADA-derived information with its member utilities, but operating in a traditional UNIX/X Windows environment made it unfeasible. About two years ago, MAIN began using EnterNet View, a Web-based SCADA solution from GE Harris, to distribute important data within MAIN and to its members. It’s a solution that has worked well, according to Saavedra. Now MAIN members and internal employees are able to access the operational data they need without incurring the high costs that generally accompany such activity.

“I think this (Internet-based SCADA data dissemination) will be the trend,” Saavedra said. “One of the reasons it might be moving slowly at this point is because of the traditional way utilities are managed. But as deregulation comes and you have to share more data, the pace will pick up. The data is already there; you just have to be able to transfer that data and make it available to users in a cost-effective way.”

Mitch Patterson, the GE Harris product manager in charge of EnterNet View, explains that from the perspective of a far-reaching enterprise like MAIN, perhaps the most important benefit of a product like EnterNet View is the fact that SCADA information can be shared with a large group without adversely affecting the EMS. “Whatever we do, we can’t impact the energy management system,” he said. “That’s the mission critical component.” Because of EnterNet View’s architecture, data from the EMS is cached on a Web server. Then, when users access the SCADA data, they’re hitting the Web server, not the EMS.

SCADA as a Service

Open Systems International (OSI) is another industry vendor applying Internet/intranet technology to SCADA, but in a slightly different way. Through it’s e-scada.com program, OSI intends to offer SCADA as a service to utilities that currently have no SCADA capabilities. Erik Felt, a senior engineer with OSI, explains that as little as five years ago, only the largest, most sophisticated utilities were utilizing SCADA. Felt sees the Internet, and services like e-scada.com, as a way to open the market to utilities of all sizes.

“I’ve heard it many times, ‘if you have to ask how much a SCADA system is, you can’t afford it,'” Felt said. “What I think Internet and intranet infrastructures will do is help bring that price breakpoint into a wider market.”

Felt sees the Web-based technology as a means to take away a lot of the hardware issues, maintenance and trouble-shooting associated with SCADA systems. Through OSI’s e-scada.com, OSI essentially becomes the SCADA master, collecting data from substation RTUs and providing utilities with that data on a subscription-fee basis (see figure). “Utilities will still have to do the localized maintenance at the substation, but beyond that, all they’ll have to do is decide what to do with the information e-scada provides them,” Felt said.

Felt says his company has proven the concept of a service provider approach to utility SCADA systems, and full-scale deployment is just around the corner. Due to changes in the current utility industry landscape, Internet-enabled SCADA is an inevitability.

“One of the things I see driving SCADA’s future is the fact that utilities are going to have centralized control rooms and their assets will be spread out all over the world,” Felt said. “But how are you going to communicate with those assets? How are you going to collect the data from those far-off places? The need for information will drive the application.”

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