Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems are a category of industrial control systems (ICSs) that have become indispensable in the operation of industrial plants, production facilities, security firms and public works over the past few decades. These computerized systems incorporate several different technologies into a central configuration for the purposes of monitoring, collecting and analyzing data through human-machine interfaces. SCADA systems are vital to the infrastructure of the country, and reliable professionals are required at all times to ensure the systems are operating correctly and efficiently and remain secure.
SCADA Systems: Components and Operation
SCADA systems are centralized ICSs that are used to monitor and control systems operations in a number of settings that range from small manufacturing facilities to an entire nations. Many of the control functions are programmed to operate automatically according to predefined times or conditions but can usually be accessed and overridden through supervisory computer terminals.
Following are some of the most important components of SCADA systems:
• Communications network, including wired or wireless telemetry
• Mechanical and analytical systems to monitor systems, gather information and execute processes
• Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to automate systems based on sensor signals
• Data acquisition server to connect software applications
• System history recorder to keep logs of activities and events
• Human-machine interface (HMI) to process and interpret data for human operators
• Remote terminal units (RTUs) to process and convert analog sensor signals into digital signals
• Supervisory computer systems for controlling the SCADA system
SCADA systems are used in a variety of settings and industries, and they may be essential elements in any of them. Governments use SCADA systems for defense, security, transportation and public works, but they are also used in the following public and private sector settings:
• Water collection, treatment and distribution centers
• Electrical power plants, including gas, coal, nuclear, hydropower, wind and solar plants
• Oil pipelines and petroleum refineries
• Manufacturing plants
• Agricultural facilities and irrigation
• Pharmaceutical laboratories
• Telecommunications companies
• Transportation and logistics systems
• Security firms
The applications in which SCADA systems play a major role fall into three categories:
1. Industrial operations – SCADA systems monitor and control operations such as manufacturing processes, production, electrical generation and material fabrication.
2. Infrastructure activities – Infrastructure activities involve both public and private institutions and include defense, water treatment, and water, gas, oil and power distribution.
3. Facilities processes – Facilities processes may also be in the public or private sectors. These processes include the operation and maintenance of transportation centers, such as airports, train stations and docks, and large vehicles or mobile research centers, such as ships and space stations.
The Importance of SCADA Systems
It is no understatement to say that the livelihood of most people and of the economy relies on SCADA systems to automate complex processes. These systems also allow organizations to monitor, analyze and improve activities to achieve greater efficiency and productivity or to develop processes of increased complexity. SCADA systems also help organizations to anticipate, plan for and react to problems or emergencies, and they reduce the risk of critical machine failure and human error.
One of the weaknesses of SCADA systems is that they have been revealed to have several inherent security issues that may critically threaten the processes, infrastructures or facilities where they have been implemented. This is of great concern when government or public infrastructures and facilities are involved. A few of the security issues surrounding SCADA systems are as follows:
• Physical sabotage
• Unauthorized access to terminals
• Network hacking
• Computer viruses and other malware
The only real solution to the above problems is to involve highly trained SCADA security personnel who can monitor and oversee mechanical, computer and networking systems. These are individuals who have been under rigorous SCADA security training and thus are well-equipped to address and combat the issues that frequently plague SCADA systems. Because SCADA is so critical to the viability of private companies and the public, these security positions must be filled with only the most capable personnel.