SCADA’s New Role Looms Large In Future

February 2012, Vol. 239 No. 2

Thomas L. Frobase, Boardwalk Pipeline Partners, Houston

Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (“SCADA”) systems have matured over their 20 years of mainstream use in the oil and gas industry. This article will take a look at the current trends and SCADA’s future direction as perceived by the writer.

U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (“PHMSA”) control-room regulations have caused many companies to re-evaluate their control-room strategy. Requirements for fatigue mitigation have required operators to predefine the criteria of screen design and alarm management. Compliance to industry-generated guidelines such as API-1165 and API-1167 will no longer be considered to be voluntary.

SCADA systems were only tangential to pipeline regulation in the past. As we move into the future the SCADA system will be a major factor in the measure of how pipeline systems are operated. The stability and accuracy of SCADA systems will be even more important in the future. The ability to transparently operate through system failures or natural disasters will be required to be the norm, not the exception.

Tools to provide a statistical assessment of the frequency, volume and recurrence of alarms have been added to many control systems in order to simplify reporting and compliance with the control room rules. Change documentation and management are being provided by controller notes applications being linked to individual field locations and, in some cases, individual safety-related points.

The multitude of location-critical alerts and events that were formerly passed through the control center and back to the field personnel by the controller has presented another area of focus. In many cases, this additional interaction with the control center must be eliminated or routed from the SCADA system directly to the personnel in the field.

The ability to use the SCADA system to deliver a set of alerts and events will require the SCADA system to support overlapping areas of responsibility which would allow the system to route safety-critical alarms from a specific device to the control room while routing location-critical alerts and events from the same device back to the field without the knowledge of the control room. The granularity of the location-critical alerts and events would be designed to direct the alerts to the appropriate technical resource for remediation, enhancing the efficiency of the workforce.

As the mobile workforce phenomenon proliferates, workforce requirements for casual access to SCADA will become mandatory. No longer can we afford to have field personnel call the control center for operational information. Many of the local alerts and events will be routed to the field personnel directly by text, e-mail or through a casual user device. Programs such as Citrix and Microsoft Remote Apps running on iPads and Android tablets provide secure access into the corporate network environment today.

Casual SCADA is just one more application in the suite of business applications that most companies currently provide to their mobile users. The vision of having field operations personnel with access to real- time data wherever they are located is not too far from becoming a reality.

SCADA systems have become more complex yet – from a hardware point of view – they have become more generic. The days of custom display hardware and custom protocol converters are gone; most current SCADA systems consist of combinations of off the shelf information technology (“IT”) servers running common operating systems, most of which are Microsoft. The current trend is to stand up SCADA in the hardened corporate data center and use in-house server-support analysts to support the hardware.

In many cases, the backup datacenter hardware is a symmetric copy of the primary site. This adds some complexity to the SCADA system since the human machine interfaces (HMIs) are not necessarily adjacent to where the servers are housed. The benefit to separating the control room from the servers is that it simplifies the selection of a backup control room site by only having to provide the HMIs and network connectivity to the primary or backup server sites. This allows flexibility in moving the operator- qualified controllers to a site convenient for operations, not the data center.
As SCADA and its associated hardware become even more mainstream, it is not a large stretch to envision the SCADA servers being housed by a third-party provider or even by the SCADA vendor.

To be efficient in this offering, the providers will be required to build these systems in a virtual environment. Virtualization will allow baseline systems to be rapidly instantiated, allowing the provider to scale systems to the customer’s size requirements. This capability would not only benefit the large users who may want to use the cloud provider as a backup center, but also the smaller players who otherwise would not be able to afford an enterprise-class SCADA system.

With the proliferation of drilling occurring domestically there is also an increased number of small and medium gathering operators, many of which have no central operations control center. SCADA in the cloud, combined with mobile SCADA HMIs, could bring SCADA to the pickup truck. This would provide enterprise-class tools for small and medium operators at an affordable price, making their operations safer and more efficient.

The unique requirements for SCADA systems in the oil and gas industry will challenge the resources of the SCADA vendor community to provide innovative extensions to their current systems while producing systems that are error-free. As the operational reliance and regulatory scrutiny of these systems increases, our business demands these systems meet the highest standards of quality.

Thomas L. Frobase
is vice president of Information Systems at Boardwalk Pipeline Partners in Houston. He has performed in management roles for more than 30 years in the areas of control systems, SCADA, telecommunications, networking and information technology at several of the major pipeline companies. He can be reached at Tom. Frobase@

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