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Ways to Upgrade your Software and Hardware Systems

Distributed control systems (DCSs), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software, and process controls are vital manufacturing systems. Keeping these systems up-to-date is very important. Reasons why these systems need to be upgraded include these 10: 

Operating system (OS) obsolescence 

Islands of information (independent systems) 

Decentralized maintenance 

Yearly software maintenance costs 

New requirements the current system can’t handle 

Being stuck to specific OS, hardware, or versions of software 

Security concerns such as no encryption or no two-factor authentication 

Preferring open standards rather than proprietary 

Third-party system integration 

Desire for an open, interoperable, and secure foundation. 

Many organizations are faced with aging infrastructure and old software. With the introduction of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and increased demand for data from the business, the worlds of operations technology (OT) and information technology (IT) are colliding. Upgrades, which may include a newer version of the same software platform or upgrading to a new software platform, are more important than ever. 

When identifying potential upgrades, there are three main categories to keep in mind: cost, security, and new technology. 

Reasons for constant upgrades 

One of the biggest drivers for upgrades is OS obsolescence. Several industrial software packages rely on specific versions of Microsoft Windows or specific hardware and will not run on newer versions without an upgrade. IT departments are forced to perform these upgrades for security and maintenance reasons. Systems cannot be air-gapped anymore, and there is significant risk involved when deciding not to upgrade. 

That gives the operations team little choice in carrying out the upgrade. They must decide—based on cost, maintenance, and technology—to stay with the same software vendor or switch to a new one. 

Expensive yearly costs for software maintenance and support are another driver toward upgrades. Organizations typically move to new software platforms with lower costs. However, many software platforms don’t cover upgrade protection to newer versions, or upgrades to newer versions are not compatible. It’s important to install packages that have backward compatibility or packages that provide a straightforward path to the newest version when an upgrade is necessary. 

Cybersecurity protection for hardware, software upgrades 

Security is another major driver. Cybersecurity threats and attack vendors are increasing every day. IT departments are working on securing network and business systems, but security is only as strong as the weakest link. For industrial networks, that weakest link is often the legacy poll/response programmable logic controller (PLC) or an older version of a software platform with security vulnerabilities. 

It’s important that all communication performed over an industrial network is encrypted following today’s standards. Software should be pen tested to identify any potential vulnerabilities such as no encryption, “human-in-the-middle” attacks, session hijacking, and others. 

Software platforms should support strong encryption, multi-factor authentication (MFA), auditing, and role/zone-based permission models. Legacy poll/response PLCs with zero security should not be exposed to the network without proper security measures. If firmware/software upgrades don’t provide better security, customers should upgrade to platforms that do. Every piece of the architecture must have a strong focus on security. 

Push toward open standards 

Sometimes, the largest drivers in upgrades are new requirements, architecture changes, third-party integrations, and a shift to open standards. Customers don’t want proprietary/closed systems that are difficult to upgrade or replace. Instead, the shift to open standards allows for using best-in-class software and hardware from multiple vendors. 

Chobani operators schedule washes for more than 150 pieces of equipment. Courtesy: Inductive Automation 

Chobani operators schedule washes for more than 150 pieces of equipment. Courtesy: Inductive Automation 

Using open standards such as OPC UA, MQTT, SQL, HTTP/HTTPS, and REST/SOAP allow for plug-and-play interoperable systems. These are standards OT and IT can understand. OT and IT should work together rather than operate independently. Upgrading these systems can allow for data sharing across the enterprise. Upgrades may be expensive up front, but they provide plenty of long-term return on investment (ROI). 

The most important consideration is understanding how a system will operate by itself and how it fits into the enterprise. 

Open, interoperable, and secure platforms provide companies flexibility and are easier to maintain. It’s much easier to upgrade or replace individual pieces than the entire infrastructure. 

The industry is changing and demanding open, interoperable, and secure systems across the board. The good news is modern software and hardware companies are evolving to incorporate these standards. Companies looking to upgrade their systems should do an inventory and find software and hardware solutions that meet their needs.