Essential Features for a New SCADA System


Used with permission of

By John M. Powers, Contributing Editor

Ralphie Parker, the main character from the classic Christmas film “A Christmas Story,” knew how to ask for something. He wanted an air rifle, but he didn’t want just any air rifle. He wanted an “Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock.” When you want something, be like Ralphie: Get specific. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a cheap copy that won’t get the job done.

Being specific isn’t always important. Sometimes it means getting a green sweater instead of the blue one you wanted. In that case, you can return the sweater for another one. It’s a hassle, but not that big of a deal.

When it comes to the sort of supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system your utility needs, it will be much more than a hassle if you don’t get what you want. Implementing a SCADA system—depending on what you want—can be a big, costly project. You want a solid idea of what to get so you don’t get stuck.


Where to Start


There are experts out there, and William T. Shaw is one of them. Shaw is the executive vice president for technology at Swan Tech and the lead consultant for Cybersecurity Consulting. Shaw is also the author of “Cybersecurity for SCADA Systems.”

SCADA system features depend on the level of the operation for which a utility wants a SCADA system, Shaw said. He offered several features a utility should make sure are included in a SCADA system for its EMS.

To start, a specter is haunting utilities, the specter of critical infrastructure protection (CIP) compliance.

“In the U.S., at least these days, if you’re in the electrical EMS SCADA world, then your customer … has got to be compliant with NERC CIPs,” Shaw said. “And that can be a very complicated and painful process for electric utilities to go through if their SCADA vendors can’t help them with this. In other words, a good electric SCADA EMS vendor better be extremely conversant with all the NERC CIP and must have really been putting into their products the various required, mandated countermeasures.”

Those countermeasures, Shaw said, are things that NERC requires, such as video monitoring and access control systems. A SCADA vendor needs to offer these things because getting compliant with the NERC CIPs is a huge project that will cost a utility a lot of resources, and there’s the deadline to consider.

“The NERC CIP penalties are going to be kicking in, and, if you were out looking for a big EMS today, you better assume your vendor is going to have people, resources and skills available to help you make sure that when you put (it) all in, you’re in full compliance with those NERC CIP mandates,” Shaw said. “If I was an EMS vendor, I would certainly be trying to provide one-stop shopping on that.”

The next two things to look for are connected, and they’re both important because of deregulation and the further automation of all levels of a utility’s operations. They are market and reliability monitoring.


The Next Step


Assuming that deregulation continues, Shaw said, at the EMS level, a utility must be able to tie in the capability to monitor the market because it will be scheduling power from plants it doesn’t own. It also also will be bidding to deliver that power. In other words, a utility must track market fluctuations around it.

Intimately tied to market monitoring will be monitoring the reliability of the resources the market is offering. Market and reliability monitoring must be part of SCADA systems because mandated statistics and other data must be reported to NERC and other regulatory bodies, Shaw said.

This feeds into the fourth recommendation. For several reasons, like markets, some utilities are still learning to monitor, or because of new reliability requirements, utilities are gathering data over huge areas. For data gathering, utilities used to be able to use their own communications infrastructures. But, as Shaw explained, that’s becoming expensive, so the alternative is communicating over the Internet. And that raises security concerns.

“A lot of utilities do make use of leased phone circuits,” Shaw said. “In the older days, those were carrying analog communications. See, people have this notion in their minds that (there are) the telephone companies, and then there are those Internet companies … (but) the phone company carries the Internet traffic. The same, exact phone-switching systems and fiber-optic networks and everything else that carry all the phone traffic are also carrying the Internet traffic. It’s the same system. And we have already had cases in the U.S. where an attack on the Internet shut down an electric utility. And it’s not because the utility was directly attacked, but the Internet backbone computers, which are the same computers carrying the leased phone traffic … got knocked on their butt.”

An attack by a worm on the phone company computers—as Shaw said, the backbone computers of the Internet—can hurt a utility because it communicates over the same systems being attacked. Utilities can protect themselves if the right kind of security features are built into their SCADA systems.

It is false to think of phone lines as safe and the Internet as unsafe, Shaw said. They are both vulnerable yet can be protected. Shaw described building a SCADA front-end for an EMS system and a family of smart remote terminal units (RTUs) equipped with virtual private network (VPN) technology for the California independent system operator that, in the IT world, is still “unhackable.” A comparable security scheme built with a SCADA system would be advisable for utilities, Shaw said.


Beyond the Norm


The next two recommendations are features that might be thought of as typical for any SCADA system, any time. The typical features will have changing duties in the future.

The fifth feature is the ability to model the grid and forecast loads, but with a twist.

Used with permission of


“Every electric utility out there is going to be doing modeling of the electrical grid,” Shaw said. “They are all going to be running load forecasting models to make the best use of generating assets. … That’s been around forever, and I don’t see that’s changing very much other than the decision of what to generate and when in the future may be a little bit different.”

Utilities will have more renewable energy generation requirements and will be required to monitor their carbon footprints, all of which will influence the type of models produced and used, Shaw said.

His sixth recommendation is not actually a feature that can be incorporated into a SCADA system. It’s more of a support function, and if you own a personal computer, you’ll understand what he’s talking about.

Shaw said that growing numbers of SCADA systems are built on commercial technology. Utilities used to build their own, or vendors made custom SCADA systems for utilities. Now SCADA systems run on an Intel platform, a Windows or Linux operating system and a whole host of other off-the-shelf hardware and software, he said. Here’s where the recommendation comes in.

“What that means is that today the SCADA vendor is heavily dependent upon these sellers, these purveyors of software,” Shaw said. “Whether it’s Microsoft or Oracle or whoever, we’re dependent on them to provide patches, updates and fixes. I get updates to my laptop practically daily from Microsoft. … SCADA systems generally can’t be connected to the Internet for the purpose of letting them be updated by Microsoft, and that being the case, that makes patching a big issue. One of the things I’d be looking for is the vendor’s ability to, in fact, test, integrate and validate patches that are being released practically hourly by people like Microsoft and checking them out in the systems.

“Because I’ve seen instances lately where some of the vendors out there, to a degree, have sort of given up, like, “ËœWe just can’t keep up anymore, so we’re not even trying. We’re not even going to check these things out. We’re just going to pass them through to you and hope they don’t blow anything up.'”

Shaw’s last recommendation almost seems obvious: Make sure your SCADA vendor has a good track record.

“There have been vendors who’ve come and gone,” he said. “There have even been vendors who were selling systems, and it was amazing to me that they didn’t go out of business, they were so bad. I have seen utilities spend millions of dollars on (SCADA systems) that didn’t work worth a damn and then had to essentially throw them away and buy another one. I’d always want to make sure I was buying something from a vendor who’d, first of all, supplied it to someone else first—I don’t like to be No. 1—and two, that I can talk to some of these people about the success they had. … These are large, complicated projects, and the ability to execute them properly (is) important.” In other words, caveat emptor (Latin: Let the buyer beware.), even for Ralphie.


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