How SCADA Works

Industrial operational data is mostly obtained from devices such as sensors, switches, and relays through I/O modules but is also acquired from higher level devices such as controllers and Remote Terminal Units (RTUs). It then makes its way to a SCADA system, which has the primary function of data acquisition and data logging. A SCADA system acquires and transforms the captured data using SCADA software, which can also be programmed for control and fault detection. The data is then presented through a Human Machine Interface (HMI) and transformed into visualizations such as pictorials, graphs, data charts, tables, etc. These can be more easily interpreted and used by operators for better operational understanding thus leading to informed decisions. Those HMI displays can also include operational elements for data entry and control, for example, start, stop, pause, setpoint control, and alarm acknowledgement. This is a quick refresher for those who have already read the first article in our SCADA blog series, but if you would like a more in-depth explanation of SCADA, you can check out ICONICS blog, “Defining SCADA & Its Uses”.

Even in a market that is over 30 years mature, you might think that all SCADA systems deliver similar functionality, and that one SCADA is as good as the next. This couldn’t be further from the truth. So, I’m going to highlight the top ten features to look for when choosing a SCADA system. Before I get started though, it’s essential to mention that a top SCADA system should be built on 64-bit technology, which will allow you to access faster processors with the higher memory capacity of 64-bit computing. These SCADA systems consequently have the ability to run faster and scale larger than other older SCADA systems. And with digital transformation being our reality nowadays, future-proofing your system by using industry standard 64-bit servers to drive your data logging is essential. And now, without further ado, here is our carefully curated top ten list.

The Top 10 Features of a SCADA System

  1. Universal Connectivity & IoT Ready: A top SCADA system should leverage universal connectivity, thus allowing you to connect to any data in your system from anywhere, i.e., making your operations IoT ready. It should allow for native implementations of BACnet, OPC, databases, web services, IoT, SNMP, MQTT, and OData (and that’s just to name a few), so you can aggregate or connect almost any data with firewall-friendly communication methods. And SCADA is not just for data from the manufacturing operational level but can also be used to seamlessly integrate data from business systems. These systems may include Inventory Management, Asset Management, Production Scheduling, Quality Management, and Manufacturing Execution Systems (MESs).
  2. High Performance Data Capture: A top SCADA should have the capability of high-speed, mission-critical data collection through a historian that can log data at a speed greater than 100,000 tags per second and that can work with the aforementioned data sources across your enterprise. It should have a secure historian that supports store-and-forward technology and that allows you to source and merge data from any open database.
  3. Rich, Powerful 2D and 3D Visualization: A top SCADA should be versatile and practical; thus, it should provide fast, scalable, and secure visualization on desktops, web browsers, and mobile devices. It should support rich WPF and script-less, thin client HTML5 technology that allows for consistent visualization on all platforms, meaning you can access your real-time data on any mobile device or web browser while providing advanced features without the need for additional configuration. The end goal here is to help your people run your operations efficiently and easily, so your SCADA should have the capacity to render real-time animated graphics that can incorporate interactive HMI features (alarms, trends, and historical data), combine 2D objects with 3D views, create smart symbols, and insert interactive controls.
  4. Live, Self-Service Dashboards: An advanced SCADA should offer configurable, self-service KPI dashboards to allow executives and managers to understand the operational big picture quickly and easily, and at any given time. These systems should allow you to drag and drop data, configure widgets, split screens, and leverage preconfigured gauges, process points, trends, alarms, and grids for quick data visualization. At a minimum, the SCADA system should provide on-the-spot display creation for visualizing data when and where it is needed.
  5. Mission-Critical Redundancy: A top SCADA system should be designed to seamlessly negotiate internal communications for redundancy, load balancing, and scalability throughout the enterprise. It should be designed for large, distributed, or mission-critical applications being fully redundant, not only at multiple levels but also at modular levels (e.g., data connectivity, historian, alarm, and client-level redundancy).
  6. Fault Analytics & Energy Monitoring: The top SCADA system should visualize, aggregate, and summarize energy usage in real-time through custom, secure, mobile-friendly energy monitoring dashboards. It should allow you to continuously commission your factories and buildings by weighing the probability of equipment failure and advising personnel of preventative actions before faults occur. The goal, of course, is to save energy and carbon consumption, to reduce downtime, and to improve maintenance efficiency.
  7. Advanced Alarming: An advanced SCADA system should come with enterprise-wide alarm and event management systems that can handle the most demanding applications. It should allocate and filter alarms from any alarm system or subscribe to multiple alarm servers and enhance normalized alarms with live data sources. It should offer extensive tools to deliver and view real-time and historical alarm information.
  8. Integrated SMS/Email Alerts: At minimum, a top SCADA should provide alert notifications via email or SMS text. More desirably, it should be able to distribute enterprise-wide alarm notifications via email, pager, fax, voice, text-to-speech, phone, instant messaging, and collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams, and on boards, task trays, and video.
  9. Scalability – Cloud-Ready & Modular: A top SCADA should be cloud-ready and be able to run on cloud-based virtual machines that would in turn enable you to distribute your application to scale and get instant access to KPIs and critical information from any device. Additionally, an advanced SCADA should be equipped to handle the entire expanse of your global enterprise from a few hundred tags to millions of tags daily. As tags are polled dynamically, even when tag configuration grows, the server CPU should not be burdened.
  10. Project Development Tools: The ideal SCADA solution should be easy enough to use at the end user level, yet flexible enough to meet the needs of system integration firms and domain experts. Most SCADA installations are done by domain experts, either a knowledgeable engineering team at a large corporation or an independent contractor (system integrator). System integrators need a solution that is powerful for their variety of applications and that delivers tools for rapid and automated development. Moreover, end users benefit from configurable solutions that don’t require software development “code”. While SCADA solutions that are code-based would seem to be able to handle anything, it comes at a price - a more challenging development cycle, higher support costs, and the inability to easily learn and take ownership of the end solution. The ideal SCADA will offer a great deal of configurability, one that supports 99% of application requirements and one that only resorts to software development or scripting in the rarest of cases.

Additional Aspects of a SCADA System to Consider

Workflow: A top SCADA solution will offer a powerful infrastructure for workflow management; in other words, it will trigger processes to perform actions and engage users in standardized procedures.

Project Documentation: There is an old saying, “The job’s not finished until the paperwork is done.” In the world of SCADA, that means application documentation. Advanced SCADA solutions will offer tools for generating reports and other project documentation. Many SCADA solutions overlook this functionality and rely on manual exports and hours of offline/external formatting to get the paperwork done. This approach is both time-consuming and error-prone and will result in poor or outdated system documentation. Documentation is typically put off until the end of a project when time and money are running out. Therefore, application documentation as a core component of SCADA is extremely valuable to both system integrators and end users.

Common Technology Throughout the Product Portfolio: SCADA solutions from leading vendors can be the result of internal developments or company/product acquisitions, the latter being much more prominent in today’s market. Having to manage a portfolio of products that has been cobbled together over time with different initial developers, different development philosophies, and different underlying technologies is extremely costly and will slow down positive product evolution. The ideal SCADA will offer the use of common technology throughout the product portfolio, thus maximizing the development of every component and eliminating the replication of functionality in a product suite.

Vertical Market Support: Many SCADA vendors specialize in vertical markets such as water and wastewater, oil and gas, food and beverage, power, building automation, and CNC manufacturing, among others. These markets are often segmented through the availability of device connectivity but also benefit from canned analytics and symbol libraries. While SCADA solutions can be applied to any application by the right system integrator, your chosen SCADA vendor should also help in support of vertical markets with specialized SCADA functionality for that market by providing specialized support and expertise that has been cultivated over years of experience.

Pricing: Ultimately, you get what you pay for. If you purchase a bare bones SCADA system, sure, you’ll save on the license cost, but you’ll pay more for development, support, documentation, and maintenance. If you purchase a full featured system, your one-time license cost or subscription fee may be higher, but you will have a solution that is easier to learn and maintain, faster to implement, and much more reliable in the long run.

Transitioning to a New, Technologically Advanced SCADA System Pays Dividends

So, by now you should have a pretty good idea of what to look for in a modern SCADA system. We understand that the amount of work it would take to migrate your information to a new system may seem daunting. We get it, and we’re here to tell you that the benefits of a more technologically advanced SCADA solution can come with ease, and with little downtime. With the help of modern migration tools, your cost of conversion is reduced, and what you’ll get is a trajectory to operational optimization and increased competitive advantage. Sure, it’s easy enough for us to say transitioning to a new technologically advanced SCADA system will pay dividends, but why not find out for yourself? Contact us for a free consultation to discuss the possibilities and the process. We look forward to speaking with you!


If you want to find out more about a top SCADA system, have a look at ICONICS GENESIS64 HMI/SCADA product page. You can also watch one of the webcasts from our Transform 360 series “Learn from the SCADA Experts and Become a Power User” to better understand the capabilities of such a SCADA system.