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A Trip Through the Automation Graveyard – Beware the Zombies!

Automation is an industry that is constantly changing as technology changes. Some hardware and software platforms adapt, but others become obsolete and are consigned to the automation graveyard. This year, InduSoft decided to take a look at some of the technological occupants of the Automation Graveyard – and at a few of the zombies that died a long time ago, but linger on in the form of legacy systems that refuse to be laid to rest!

There are three main sections in the automation graveyard, though the number of plots is endless. There’s the Operating System section, where antiquated operating systems like Unix languish. Then there’s the Hardware section – a scary path filled with the bones of long-dead machines. Finally, around the bend, you come to the Software crypts, where innumerable proprietary systems and unsupported software platforms are frozen in time. Walk with us as we explore a few of these final resting places, but beware of zombies! Many of these dead systems are still shuffling along, performing their limited range of functions, and are doomed to hunger for more support until they fall apart.

Operating Systems – A series of fading headstones

Here lies DOS, 1981-1995. If you look carefully, however, the ground beneath this 8” floppy headstone is disturbed. A number of legacy systems still operate on a DOS based operating system.  DOS isn’t the only operating system here, however. Unix and older Windows operating systems such as Windows 3.1 are spaced throughout this graveyard. CP/M has another plot. Here lies the final resting place of many early SCADA systems. As operating systems become obsolete and are no longer supported, the system built around them can no longer function. OS death leads directly to the death of many off-the-shelf SCADA systems. If SCADA software platforms are not committed to supporting older and newer operating systems, then those systems may be on deathwatch.

In order to avoid this automation graveyard entirely, InduSoft continues to evolve its SCADA system to the latest MicroSoft Windows 8 operating system while still maintaining 100% compatibility from Indusoft Web Studio V1.0 to the latest Indusoft Web Studio V7.1. This makes upgrading older projects simple, and banishes many of the nightmares a dead OS can cause.

Hardware – A boneyard of dead devices

Of all the occupants of the automation graveyard, hardware is perhaps the easiest to identify as truly dead. When hardware is no longer being produced, that’s a clear sign that its shelf life has expired. When it is no longer supported, that is the time to take it off life support and lay it to rest for good. Ask a teenager why disk drives begin with C:, and see if they recall the long-departed floppy disk. Better still, look for someone who had ever used punched tape or cards. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find computers with RS-232 ports.

The death of hardware is something that we can see on the horizon, but some systems have a hard time letting go. When dying hardware is connected to proprietary or similarly dying SCADA software platforms, they may slowly turn one another into the Undead – a system that keeps running well past its obsolescence, simply because the burden of replacing it is too high.

The death of dedicated PLC programming terminals took down many systems. Non-PC based SCADA platforms such as PanelView required proprietary operator terminals and programming terminals. Now, the only way to salvage these older applications is to use an import wizard, like those available from InduSoft, to revive these systems in the form of modern SCADA software applications.

Unfortunately, many control engineers wait until it’s too late to save their systems. Once hardware is dead, it may infect the rest of the system with the zombie virus if not replaced. It is always better to upgrade your system before hardware breaks down. Scheduled downtime that occurs when upgrading your system may be painful, but it will be far less painful, and far less expensive than a catastrophic failure of unsupported, obsolete equipment.

Software – Frozen ghosts

Software can be as prone to death as hardware and operating systems. While some software can continuously adapt to changing technology and go on indefinitely, many more SCADA software platforms that are not based on open standards are killed by a variety of factors. Obsolete hardware will bury proprietary software right alongside it. Old software may be declared dead when it supports older versions of protocols, but not newer ones. For example, ControlNet is now Ethernet IP, and SCADA software that only supports the older version will not communicate with legacy systems.

The real ghosts of the software graveyard are the completely proprietary platforms that were written by a single person, or a small team. As personnel in companies changes, a platform designed by one person has no guarantee of support. Proprietary platforms are often written to fill a very specific niche of certain hardware, using certain protocols, in a certain configuration. These solitary SCADA platforms are obsolete almost the moment they’re created, and they form a frozen moment in time. Likewise, many small SCADA companies have come and gone, leaving ghost systems in their wake. These systems are fixed in time, and offer little or no flexibility to change or grow.

How to Avoid the SCADA Graveyard

If a tour through the Automation Graveyard is too terrifying, there are steps you can take to avoid that path entirely. The best chance of keeping your systems alive and healthy is to choose SCADA software platforms based on open standards, with a proven track record of maintaining compatibility as new operating systems come and go, and as equipment protocols change over time. If you’re beginning a SCADA project, search for hardware vendors and system integrators with a history of partnership with SCADA platforms that can communicate with the dead and the living alike.

A Trip Through the Automation Graveyard – Beware the Zombies!

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