OPC UA is Frictionless Bridge to New Automation Architecture

  • February 21, 2011
  • Feature
By Bill Lydon - Editor, February 2011
OPC UA elevates automation systems to the level of current computing technology by leveraging web services and Internet Protocol (IP), enabling automation systems to deliver increased value. Web services automate linkages among applications making connections easy and inexpensive. In enterprise business systems, Web services are delivering more efficiency, value, and creating new opportunities. OPC UA builds on the same technologies and provides the means to unlock huge potential value throughout automation systems from sensor to enterprise. Today, connecting systems requires proprietary interfaces and/or custom code to “glue” them together. Large technology companies including IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle are investing billions of dollars to develop and refine the Web services infrastructure that is leveraged by OPC UA.
A big change in perspective is that OPC UA can reside on any computing platform, including embedded processors, to deliver frictionless information linkages. OPC UA provides opportunities to flatten system architectures by implementing embedded controls and sensors with built in OPC UA technology. For example, a sensor or controller can provide performance data directly to enterprise systems without going through intermediate HMI servers, therefore making systems more efficient and responsive. This allows all levels of automation systems to easily interact, creating new opportunities for efficiencies and flexibility.
Consider Embedded Labs embedded OPC-UA Embedded Device Server Software Stack that allows rapid integration of a compliant OPC-UA Server into a product with minimum RAM, FLASH and CPU resource requirements. The company also sells the fasaLINK OPC-UA Server Module for under $100 to add OPC UA to low volume products.  More information.
OPC UA leverages Web Services, which is becoming the preferred method for system communications and interaction for all networked devices. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web and defines a Web Service as "a software system designed to support interoperable machine-to-machine interaction over a network."
What is the big idea?
The big idea is that OPC UA objects, leveraging the Internet Protocol (IP), provide an open architecture transparent mechanism to link information throughout an automation system, including to the enterprise. Anyone that has used PLCs to do coordinated control between controllers and link production information to business systems using register-based data can appreciate the value proposition of OPC UA. There are great opportunities in linking sensors to enterprise and controller to controller, namely increased production and responsiveness of manufacturing and process systems. 
OPC UA can reside at all levels of a system including controllers and embedded controllers. One way to think about how powerful this can be is to consider the functions most of us use on a Blackberry, iPhone, or other smart phone – functions that previously have only been available on a computer (e-mail, Web browsing, video, GPS, etc.). Single chip processors with high power and low cost can easily support OPC UA, creating powerful controllers and sensors.
Open Architecture Advantage
There are automation suppliers that deliver this type of information connectivity within their system architectures but it’s proprietary and does not offer frictionless interaction with other systems. The user is left with the choice of buying from one vendor or having specialized interfaces. Few companies have the power or the will to force their prime automation supplier to interface efficiently with other suppliers. It must be done with open standards. OPC UA enables applications to interact with any number of automation products inexpensively and easily. Users that adopt open architecture are always in a better position to leverage creative and innovative automation technology from a wider number of suppliers, ultimately improve operating efficiencies and profits.
Platform Independent
OPC UA is designed to be platform-independent and operating system-independent. OPC UA supports Windows, Linux, and a variety of Embedded Operating Systems.  There are a standard set of operating system-independent communication interfaces (stacks) developed by and managed by the OPC Foundation.  This enables OPC UA to be used in a very broad range of applications, from sensors to analytic equipment, HMI/SCADA and up to Enterprise applications.  It also enables OPC UA to be used on a number of automation application areas including medical devices, automotive, the new Smart Grid and much more. 
OPC UA has been designed to be secure with features including encrypted communications and identity certificates. OPC UA follows the RSA standards (algorithm for public-key cryptography) and leverages X509 standard security certificates.  The design meets the needs of wide area communications with the highest degree of security. Both 128 and 256 bit encryption is supported. Security is one of the greatest benefits of OPC UA and users can now create widely distributed information systems, even Internet-based communications, knowing that security has been considered from the start and is at the core of the design.
Controller to Enterprise Example
PLCopen, in a joint cooperation with the OPC Foundation, has developed OPC UA function blocks to simplify linking information from controllers and to the enterprise. This was first demonstrated at the 2009 SPS/IPC/Drives show in Nuremberg with an OPC-UA solution from SAP interchanging information from multiple vendor controllers. www.plcopen.org
Thoughts and Observations
OPC UA looks like it will be a core building block for the next generation of automation systems. The good news is it can also be used to improve legacy.
OPC UA takes open architecture to a new level that will benefit users who will leverage creative and innovative automation technology from a wider number of suppliers.
This is going to be fun to watch.
More Information
OPC Foundation:
Windows Communication Foundation Portal:
A Developer’s Introduction to Windows Communication Foundation (WCF):
PLCopen OPC UA Committee:

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