SCADA Systems: Top 8 Tips For SCADA Success

Contributor:  Timothy Haïdar, EIC
Posted:  05/15/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition or SCADA systems are now in place in the majority of the world’s facilities, especially where large-scale automation is a key constituent.

SCADA systems monitor and control internal operations by gathering data from sensors embedded in the facility or remote terminal units (RTUs) and then relaying it to a centralised computer system that sorts the data and manages operations accordingly, called the master terminal unit (MTU).

When thinking about SCADA systems, there are eight things that should be borne in mind.

1: Choose your system wisely

As with any computer system, there are two main things that should be taken into consideration when purchasing a SCADA system:

a)      Which provider to opt for: legacy providers, historical reputation and peer preference are all factors that play a part in this. 

b)      Sector-specific needs: with industries using SCADA systems ranging from nuclear power and manufacturing to water supply management, making sure that the system you choose is aligned to the requirements of your organisation and sector is key. 

2: Get network integration right

Migrating from one system to another can often lead to significant downtime as well as data loss, damaged data integrity and accurate data transfer. In a water works or nuclear facility, such losses could be detrimental to consumers or potentially catastrophic, so making sure that integration is carried out efficiently and with contingency planning in play is vital. 

3: Prepare for environmental hazard

If remote terminal units (RTUs) are based out in the open, extreme conditions will eventually take their toll. Improving the durability of SCADA equipment is paramount for regions such as the Middle East with scorching temperatures during the day, cold nights and abrasive and inhospitable conditions.

For maximum performance, periodic maintenance should be carried out in-line with a 10 – 15 year equipment lifespan.

4: Factor in time for replacement of obsolete components

The obsolescence of integral parts of the SCADA framework is inevitable with the march of time and quick-fire advancements in technology, so having a replacement plan on the shelf is a must to prevent loss of money and time.

This downtime can also be circumvented by initially selecting a SCADA package that will improve usability, maximise flexibility and provide for future expansion.   

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5: Security threats are always changing

Just like their biological cousins, computer viruses evolve as quickly as their uploaders are diligent, and threat profiles are updated with frightening constancy. Having regular and thorough auditing strategies is one way to make sure that your SCADA systems are up to the task.         

6: It is difficult to detect what makes your system vulnerable

Despite the myriad of threats and possible chinks in the SCADA suit of armour, it is still difficult to quantify exactly how vulnerable a SCADA system is to attack. Assessments can be conducted to reduce the causes of vulnerability through threat simulation, and the most classic of these methods is the use of attack trees.

An attack tree may be an extremely complex analysis of thousands of different potential pathways from root threat to attack completion, yet it would be impossible to cover all the routes that a determined attacker with proficient malware could take to get to reach a nefarious end.            

7: Interoperability

Many SCADA systems use their own dedicated and proprietary communication protocols as opposed to shared and open systems. Within wide-ranging networks, the interoperability of different systems is crucial to the smooth running of the framework as a whole.

The use of open systems represents the best way to ensure that devices can communicate with each other on a “level playing field.” However, open protocols also come with a greater risk of infiltration from rogue devices. Striking the balance between interoperability and security is a primary concern that all companies must deal with on an individual basis.           

8: Upgrades: It might be difficult to justify the ROI

SCADA systems are upgraded and expanded for a number of reasons: obsolescence, spiralling maintenance costs, lack of replacement parts or even the pulling of a software provider's product from the market.

These “needs must” changes are clearly justifiable against a company’s bottom line. However, if there are no tangible drivers for change, it is much harder to rationalise the return on investment of a purely theoretical and often extremely expensive replacement of business process architecture.  

Timothy Haïdar, EIC Contributor:   Timothy Haïdar, EIC


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