Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Some thought concerning a rapidly emerging internet of things 5: the active and interactively connected complex and mission-critical SCADA network

Posted in business and convergent technologies, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on June 12, 2013

This is my fifth posting to a series on a rapidly emerging new level of online involvement and connectedness: the internet of things (see Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2, postings 211 and loosely following for Parts 1-4.)

I have been writing about Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems for a while now in this blog, and have continued that discussion thread here in the context of the rapidly emerging internet of things.

In Part 4 of this series, and I add in several previous postings, I have touched upon the possibility and the emerging reality of the networked and connected smart home of the future and the home SCADA network (see for example, Commoditizing the standardized, commoditizing the individually customized 6: post-assembly line production and the emergence of a new personalized production capability 2.) In that and other small-scale network of things examples, a primary goal is to standardize and improve efficiency through networked connectivity and automation of some set of basic ongoing task requirements. (For the home network example, “efficiency” can in many if not most cases be translated into terms such as comfort and convenience, but whatever functional outcomes it would mean the basic goal is efficiency.) And I developed this example in small and even localized network terms, in developing a basic building block model for what would go into assembling and operating more complex networked systems.

My goal for this posting is to take that jump in scale and complexity to a next step. So I turn to consider industrial and other large scale networked SCADA systems. And in that, networked and automated networked systems are developed and refined and implemented, and further refined and evolved for purposes of systems optimization. And with sufficient systems complexity this type of approach becomes necessary to even make them operationally possible. And I begin addressing that from the basics.

• As the number of operational nodes in a system (the number of functionally significant devices that carry out operational steps in complex process flows, monitors and gauges, etc.) expand linearly, the levels of information that has to be developed and managed for monitoring and effectively operating them grows faster and generally much faster – geometrically, exponentially or faster.
• And complexity there can quickly outgrow any realistic capacity for direct human oversight, requiring automation for management of at least subsystems of ongoing processes. This becomes particularly true as the timeframe in which command and control decisions would be needed, collapses down and control has to come closer and closer to true real-time.

This applies to the set-up and operation of complex stand-alone facilities such as single large petrochemical refineries that separate off seemingly endless distillate fractions as separate and distinct products out of the raw crude oil they start with, and that can collectively include hundreds of thousands of operational nodes in their overall systems, and with many if not most of their myriad critical subsystems requiring real-time monitoring and control. And when these facilities are themselves functionally networked, connected into continuously operated pipelines for key output products such as natural gas, those overall connecting grids have to be organized as highly controlled and reliable SCADA systems too.

The same basic issues as noted in this example apply with equal or even greater force in electrical power plants, and certainly for nuclear power plants but also for coal-fired and other facilities. And next generation smart SCADA controlled electrical power grids are increasingly proving to be essential if functionally interconnected systems are to be developed, where power generation capacity can be distributed over wider and wider areas for greater overall systems efficiency in the face of fluctuating lulls and spikes in local power demand. And in both this and the petrochemical systems example I touched upon above, and in many other critical infrastructure systems that I could cite here, this is all about developing networks of things. And when these systems are globally connected and in any way accessible and controllable through internet channels, and even with highly secure access interfaces and firewalls, they enter into the overall global internet of things.

• This process may be happening more quickly in the most industrially developed and technologically advanced countries, but the basic trend is for critical industrial and national infrastructures everywhere to be networked, and through increasingly automated SCADA systems.
• And this means critically important infrastructure systems of all types are joining into an increasingly ubiquitous internet of things.

And this brings me to a final point of discussion for this posting, that I indicated I would address here when finishing Part 4. I focused in Part 4 and in fact in this series’ discussion leading up to it on simple systems, and on how complex systems can be constructed in many if not most respects from them. But at the end of Part 4 I raised the specter of emergent properties.

• It is a hallmark characteristic of active networks of things such as large-scale SCADA systems, that new properties arise as scale thresholds pass, that cannot be represented or even necessarily predicted from their simpler subsystems and components and their behavior.
• And this applies both to the networked systems that have to be monitored and to the processes required to monitor and control them.

To take that out of the abstract, I would refer back to my petrochemical refinery and pipeline system, and with a specific product such as natural gas in such a pipeline sourced from a complex system of refineries and storage facilities. Temperature and pressure gradients and resulting density fluctuations that do not significantly arise in smaller, more localized systems can and do begin to emerge in larger and more geographically dispersed systems. And this means both new and emergent properties of the overall system that need to be monitored and controlled, and new and emergent monitoring and control oversight systems requirements too. And that means taking into account friction of gas flow across the inside surface of the pipeline, and at every juncture or other discontinuity, and turbulence, and a wide range of other fluid dynamics issues. As a specific point of detail where that type of issue becomes important, and switching to consider oil flow, crude oil can only reliably keep flowing through the Trans-Alaskan pipeline system, and certainly in colder months because the friction of its passage through the pipeline keeps it warm enough and at a low enough viscosity so it can continue on. But if the flow were to stop for sufficient periods for it to cool down to outside ambient temperatures, at least some parts of that pipeline would in effect freeze up with the oil in it becoming too viscous to get moving again, without specialized outside help. Emergent properties bring with them both new levels and types of opportunity and challenge, and frequently together.

I am going to switch from discussion of organized, single network business model systems such as SCADA systems in my next series installment to take a closer look as ad hoc systems, and in that I will focus on systems for monitoring traffic flow on the road for vehicular traffic, and the potential for next generation weather prediction systems. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time and its continuation page, and at Social Networking and Business.

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