Selecting The Right SCADA Technology

Modern SCADA technologies offer choices that satisfy functionality and security requirements while improving performance for remote users.

Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems have an important role on automation projects. Though a lot has changed in 60 years, not many improvements have been made to SCADA systems in the past 20 years. 

Some important changes have taken place, such as the move from DOS to Windows platforms, as well as the adoption of open protocols and high-performance HMI, but SCADA systems have often lagged behind other types of software.

When supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems were first developed and deployed on mainframe and mini computers, access was limited to local displays and to data terminals, which were typically located in close proximity to the main computing platform. 

Networking was proprietary and limited to connections to the data terminals, with no concept of open systems or remote access. 

Much has changed since those early days, as SCADA and automation systems are now usually connected to an extensive and open communications network within a plant or facility. With fewer staff tasked with more responsibilities, it’s often necessary to extend the SCADA system to remote users, either through the plant network or via other means. 

Modern, networked SCADA systems offer many advantages over their predecessors, most notably in terms of the functionality, speed, and low cost of remote access. 

They are designed to provide easy data collection and control for remote sites, and extensive options for remote access to perform monitoring and control. Web-based SCADA has taken this paradigm to the next level as it supplies users, regardless of their location, with similar access to what they would have in the control room. 

Modern SCADA systems provide local control and monitoring along with global access, giving workers crucial information when and where they need it. They include valuable tools, such as configurable alarms, that help personnel prevent small issues from escalating into major problems. 

In addition, these advanced solutions deliver powerful visualization capabilities to help identify the root cause of alarms. SCADA systems also offer impressive trending and reporting capabilities to improve overall operations and maintain compliance with government regulations. 

There are three main methods for accessing SCADA systems remotely: secure viewer thin clients, Web-based thin clients, and mobile clients. This article provides an overview of these methods, and also examines the best option for different applications. 

Secure viewer thin clients

A secure viewer replicates the local SCADA run time screens on a thin client, typically a PC or a less powerful embedded computing device. When a PC is used, it often is used for multiple functions in addition to SCADA remote access. When an embedded computing device is used, it functions as a dedicated remote access terminal. 

Many consider this the most secure method for remote viewing because the thin clients are connected to the server via a secure corporate network, typically with no Internet connectivity allowed. 

Thin client screen navigation and interaction can also be restricted to specific HMI/SCADA functions to further safeguard the system. For example, a particular user could be assigned a password commensurate with his or her access requirements, with more extensive access prohibited. 

While this solution can’t be accessed over the Internet, it is compatible with both wired and wireless networks. In addition, it offers encryption capabilities using secure socket layer (SSL-RC6 Standard) 128-bit encryption technology to provide a high level of security. 

Web-based thin clients

For remote access far from the control room, the Internet often provides low-cost networking with acceptable performance, making Web-based thin clients a better choice than secure viewers, which require their own dedicated network. 

Web-based thin clients lower networking costs, as one of the most expensive components of many SCADA systems is the communications infrastructure, particularly as the distance between the control room and the thin client increases. 

Mobile Clients

Mobile clients take the Web-based thin client concept to another level by providing access to the SCADA system via handheld devices such as smartphones and tablets. Not only does this promote exceptional mobility, it can also lower both communications and hardware costs.

Communication costs are lower because many cell network providers charge less than Internet providers. Cell providers are able to provide inexpensive data access because this type of traffic doesn’t have the real-time requirements of voice calls, making it possible for providers to use data traffic as a fill-in to wring the most out of their network capacity. 

Hardware costs are lower because smartphones and tablets are less expensive than PCs and embedded computing platforms. Some companies are reducing costs further by implementing bring-your-own-device policies, which require employees to use their personal cell phones and tablets for SCADA remote access and other tasks. 

In most cases, employees already have these devices, and companies pay employees a fixed amount, typically amounting to a portion of their monthly provider fees. 

Browsers or Apps?

If remote users are going to be accessing many screens or graphics, an app is often a better choice than browser-based access in terms of speed and usability. Apps are designed specifically for smartphones and other handheld devices, so screens are generally sized correctly, eliminating the need for excessive scrolling and long retrieval times. 

Many HMI/SCADA software packages provide a mobile phone app for free or for a very nominal charge. As with thin client and mobile browser access, remote users benefit from full-featured two-way communication. As compared to a browser, these SCADA apps connect and load screens faster to deliver more rapid response times. 

While many of these apps don’t require users to do screen conversions, there is a small level of effort required for setup, typically similar to what a user would execute when loading an app for his or her cell phone. 

Whether implementing browser or app access, it’s important to select the right SCADA development package. Because the programming languages used for Apple products are different from those used for Android-based and other tablets and smartphones, less innovative SCADA suppliers must write apps and browser-based applications separately for each operating system type. 

This means users often have to wait months for their smartphone or tablet application to be developed or upgraded. 

Improving Security

SCADA security is of utmost importance. The general media has publicised alarming stories on the vulnerability of SCADA systems, and enabling Internet or cell network access to SCADA systems does require additional security measures such as firewalls, passwords, and possibly encrypted virtual private networks. 

Most SCADA users are familiar with the Stuxnet worm that was discovered in June 2010. In addition to gaining access to the SCADA system, it was the first major instance of malware used to destroy equipment. 

Stuxnet was an important wake-up call to many companies. However, many continue to erroneously believe it demonstrates the dangers of the Internet. The Stuxnet worm initially spread using infected removable drives (USB flash drives), and it then used peer-to-peer remote procedure calls to infect other computers inside private networks that weren’t connected to the Internet. 

This example is used to show that any network, regardless of how it’s accessed, is vulnerable to attacks if it’s not properly protected. It’s equally important to prohibit unauthorized access from the PCs connected to a private network as it is to create firewalls for Web-based and cell network access. 

Industrial security experts advise treating SCADA security with an in-depth strategy that leverages common IT practices and security measures including firewalls, encryption, and proper procedures. 

Many companies use a virtual private network (VPN) to secure communications between multiple networks or multiple hosts. A VPN establishes a protected tunnel across the Internet or other communication network that keeps data safe from unauthorised access. 

Communications are safeguarded regardless of the path taken or the distance traveled. Fortunately, today’s advanced SCADA systems offer a high level of protection and functionality for remote access if implemented correctly, and if correct security procedures are followed.

Regardless of the device and method used, inevitably the vast majority of SCADA systems need to provide some sort of remote access. The very nature of these systems is to facilitate the monitoring and control of remote processes and operations, so trying to isolate the SCADA system creates a real risk of falling behind competitors. 

The good news is now SCADA users have many options for providing that remote access, with different ones to suit each application.

Control Engineering:

You Might Also Read:

Industrial Control Systems Are A Soft Target For Cyber Attackers

US Homeland Security Warns Of Dangerous SCADA Flaw

« Five Trends In Attacks On Industrial Control Systems
PAS Global Named Leader In Industrial Control Systems Cyber Market »

Directory of Suppliers

WEBINAR: How to achieve security visibility at scale in the AWS Cloud

WEBINAR: How to achieve security visibility at scale in the AWS Cloud

Thursday August 27, 2020: Join SANS and AWS Marketplace to learn how you can leverage solutions to create visibility at scale and allow you to do more with your data and improve your security posture.

Jooble

Jooble

Jooble is a job search aggregator operating in 71 countries worldwide. We simplify the job search process by displaying active job ads from major job boards and career sites across the internet.

CSI Consulting Services

CSI Consulting Services

Get Advice From The Experts: * Training * Penetration Testing * Data Governance * GDPR Compliance. Connecting you to the best in the business.

Clayden Law

Clayden Law

Clayden Law are experts in information technology, data privacy and cybersecurity law.

WEBINAR: How to improve threat detection and hunting in the AWS Cloud

WEBINAR: How to improve threat detection and hunting in the AWS Cloud

Thursday, August 20, 2020 - Join SANS and AWS Marketplace to learn the exercise of applying MITRE’s ATT&CK Matrix to the AWS Cloud and how to enhance threat detection and hunting in an AWS environment

DigitalStakeout

DigitalStakeout

A simple and cost-effective solution to monitor, investigate and analyze data from the web, social media and cyber sources to identify threats and make better security decisions.

Practice Labs

Practice Labs

Practice Labs is an IT competency hub, where live-lab environments give access to real equipment for hands-on practice of essential cybersecurity skills.

Authentic8

Authentic8

Authentic8 transforms how organizations secure and control the use of the web with Silo, its patented cloud browser.

ZenGRC

ZenGRC

ZenGRC - the first, easy-to-use, enterprise-grade information security solution for compliance and risk management - offers businesses efficient control tracking, testing, and enforcement.

Cyber Security Service Supplier Directory

Cyber Security Service Supplier Directory

Free Access: Cyber Security Service Supplier Directory listing 5,000+ specialist service providers.

Bambenek Consulting

Bambenek Consulting

Bambenek Consulting is an IT consulting firm focused on cybersecurity and cybercrime.

MNCERT/CC

MNCERT/CC

MNCERT/CC is the national Computer Emergency Response Team for Mongolia.

Redspin

Redspin

Redspin provide penetration testing, security assessments and consulting services.

Dragos

Dragos

Dragos has built the first industrial cybersecurity ecosystem, the ultimate security defense.

Infinity IT Solutions

Infinity IT Solutions

Infinity IT Solutions are specialists in managed IT services including Cyber Security, Cloud Services, Network Design, Installation and Maintenance.

Securign

Securign

Securign gives you powerful threat detection capabilities across your cloud and on-premises landscape,helping to eliminate your security blind spots and regain control over shadow IT.

Estio Training

Estio Training

Estio Training is a specialist digital and IT apprenticeships provider, dedicated to introducing new skills and developing existing talent in businesses across the UK.

Mindsight

Mindsight

Mindsight is a technology consulting firm with expertise from cybersecurity to cloud, disaster recovery to infrastructure, and collaboration to contact center.