SCADA systems make the move to IP networks

SCADA vendors still have proprietary mindset

Mining company Zinifex Century Limited has joined a long list of organizations moving SCADA systems over to IP networks.

The company's business systems superintendent, Bradley Winks, said there is a high reliance on SCADA systems across its operations to monitor and control remote infrastructure like, bore pumps, pipelines, generators, and to do active monitoring of mobile mining equipment like haul trucks, excavators, and loaders.

"We run both SCADA networks converged onto our local IP networks and SCADA networks that run on legacy digital radio networks," Winks said, adding at least 80 percent of Zinifex's SCADA systems are IP-based.

"We run several IP SCADA networks due to the varying requirements of the equipment the SCADA systems are interfaced to," he said. "Some of these networks are distributed via secured wireless networks while other systems are hardwired via copper and fibre.

"All of these networks are logically separated and each has its own specific design parameters, such as the security model used and availability requirements."

Winks sees a "very definite" trend of SCADA systems moving to IP networks because there are many "real benefits" in moving to a well engineered converged network.

He said being able to support just one communications network for all applications offers huge benefits.

"The benefits are predominately through getting good economy in scale and include gains [like] shared network resources across multiple applications; network improvements such as added redundancy and capacity shared across all applications; shared network management systems; and only having to maintain one skill set in site support staff," he said.

That said, Winks does stress that these gains are only possible if the network is designed correctly from the outset.

The legacy SCADA systems at Zinifex required multiple skill sets to support just the communication networks that they use, including Modbus and proprietary protocols like DH+.

"Interfacing between systems from different vendors was a real nightmare and IP-based systems have greatly improved this issue," Winks said.

He advises IT managers and CIOs to engage both SCADA and IP network specialists to successfully implement SCADA on IP and the two companies must be able to work together to provide the right outcome.

"SCADA systems should always be looked at as part of the complete system it is connecting to and ensure the entire system is fit for purpose regardless of whether the SCADA system sits on an IP network or not," he said.

"Some applications for SCADA systems are far better suited to old fashioned radio communications and trying to convert these systems to IP just for the sake of using IP can greatly increase the complexity and subsequent risk associated with the system."

Winks also recommends network availability and reliability must be at a suitable level to support the application.

"In many cases we have had to install new or upgrade existing power systems on routers and switches and implement redundant paths back to the network core in area's where we are supporting SCADA applications on IP," he said.

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