You are on page 1of 3


SCADA In Modern Environments

History of SCADA and DCS
There is considerable confusion today about the difference between DCS ("Distributed Control
Systems") and SCADA ("Site Control And Data Acquisition") systems. As you can tell from
expanded acronyms above, SCADA includes "Data Acquisition" in addition to "Control". DCS,
on the other hand, contains only "Control".
Understanding why this difference exists requires a 15-second log lesson. Many ears ago,
computer networks either did not yet exist or had very low bandwidth. Back then, a SCADA
system was the top-level controller for many lower-level intelligent agents. It was simply
impractical to have a single system controlling every minute aspect of a system. In this technical
environment, DCS devices did most of the detail work and simply reported to (and took highlevel orders from) the SCADA system.
Today, computer networks have become fast. They're so fast that there's no practical reason for
SCADA and DCS to be separate. That's why they have blurred together into a single monitoring
and control system. The choice of name - SCADA vs. DCS - largely depends on the region
where you work. Some areas favor SCADA, others favor DCS. Occasionally, some people will
use a term different than their coworkers. This happens when you work with systems before a
merger. It also happens when you move from some other region. This again leads to confusion
when new employees must learn to manage SCADA/DCS.
Now that you know the diminishing significance of the DCS vs. SCADA debate in modern times,
it's worthwhile to know some of the fading distinctions. First and foremost, SCADA is the
preferred technology for monitoring processes and events that are spread out across a large
geographic area. That's mostly due to the second key distinction: SCADA has distributed
intelligence. This allows monitoring and control to continue when communication to the central
hub has been lost. Conversely, a traditional DCS system would not be able to operate in a geodiverse scenario like this one. It is too heavily focused on local events and has no ability to
temporary endure communication outages.
SCADA has grown to encompass the traditional DCS role of distributed intelligent devices. It will
help your understanding to look at a specific example now. There are many RTUs to choose
from. I prefer to use an RTU (an intelligent remote SCADA device) with a good blend of
common functions. That kind of RTU would be a good option in many different SCADA projects.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the SCADA-Guardian RTU. As I explained above, half of
the job of a SCADA system is to monitor remote events and report them back to you. For that
task, the SCADA-Guardian has a few different technologies available. First (and the simplest
technologically), are discrete alarm inputs. These are binary inputs that detect the presence or

absence of a small current. They are wired into contact closure outputs from remote gear to
detect remote conditions that need your attention. The SCADA-Guardian has 8 of them, which
makes it a small-to-medium RTU when measured based on discrete alarm inputs.
It's actually a larger RTU than this capacity implies, however. It simply has more of its inputs
used for other, more advanced technologies. The SCADA-Guardian also has 8 traditional
industry-standard analog inputs. These measure either voltage or current input on a continuum.
As you can see, these inputs allow for infinitely more granularity than the "yes/no" information
that discrete inputs deliver. Instead of "above tolerance", you'll know that the temperature at a
key location is "98 degrees Fahrenheit".
Since analog inputs are so powerful (especially in production, telecom, water treatment, and
energy applications), this particular RTU model also has a second method of accommodating
an extra 16 analog sensors. This set of 16 uses a technology that has been rapidly growing in
the SCADA and broader remote monitoring industries. That new tech is: power and
communication for remote sensors over a single wire. Known as "D-Wire" on DPS Telecom
remotes, these sensors can be daisy-chained from one to the other. This is helpful when your
SCADA system's sensors must be located a good distance from the central RTU. Daisychaining drastically reduces the amount of wire that's required. Each sensor is joined to the
previous sensor in the chain (for both data and power). You don't have to run wire all the way
back to the RTU.
Finally, don't forget that monitoring temperature is a very common task in SCADA / DCS
environments. Well-built RTUs like the SCADA-Guardian will include an ambient temperature
sensor built into the RTU itself. This is an easy feature to add that won't add any size outside
the RTU chassis. It's not quite as accurate as an external probe, but it's much better than having
nothing at all.
There are other options when choosing an RTU for your SCADA/DCS system. These include
looking for a strong, industrial-grade chassis. A powder-coated metal housing is always a good
You also need to ensure that you RTU will be able to withstand any hot and cold temperatures
within your operations. An RTU with an industrial temperature range is equipped to handle a
span of sometimes hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit. Lesser RTU's must be run in temperaturecontrolled rooms (similar to a PC workstation's requirements). This limits your flexibility during
Make sure that the SCADA / DCS gear vendor you choose puts its RTUs through rigorous inhouse testing. Third-party testing is good, but it's possible for a company to pass through trial

and error without really "knowing their stuff." In-house testing permits quick revision cycles and
top-notch hardware. What if you need a minor hardware modification for a special project? Your
vendor will know how to make the change without disrupting the device's durability. They can
also test the new design quickly without enduring an independent lab's multi-month wait times.
This in-house testing requirement applies to both temperature range and EMI (electromagnetic
interference). To test temperature, just an industrial temperature chamber is required. These are
about the size of a refrigerator and run both hot and cold tests. Testing EMI requires a larger
anechoic chamber with carbon-construction cones. This is a vital test, however. It ensures that
your SCADA/DCS RTU will not output significant levels of disruptive interference. It also shows
that your will be able to tolerate normal interference from other devices in your operations.