A City in the Clouds

Sept. 18, 2017
Illinois city upgrades SCADA system & improves reliability

About the author: John Bray is a creative and technical writer and author. Bray can be reached at [email protected].

Seeking to update its SCADA system, the city of Ottawa ditched its radio communications for a cloud-based system that can be accessed from mobile devices and tablets in addition to onsite terminals.

As one of the most common industrial control systems, a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system is of critical importance to municipalities. By allowing for the centralized monitoring of the larger water system—wastewater treatment, storm water, water treatment, lift stations, etc.—SCADA systems streamline access and help ensure that everything is running as planned. Unfortunately, traditional SCADA systems have not kept pace with technology, leaving many municipalities with unnecessarily high expenses and a lack of flexibility, access and security.

When it came time for the city of Ottawa, Ill., to update its decades-old SCADA system, antiquated controls and unreliable radio system, the municipality recognized that it needed a broader change. While SCADA systems historically have been operated from one central onsite computer, Ottawa did not want to feel tethered to or dependent on an old system or an independent contractor integrator. Rebuilding a SCADA system with multiple sites and hardware from various manufacturers programmed by others is no small task, but engineers from Metropolitan Industries were able to work with the city to ease implementation and streamline system monitoring by bringing the processes into the MetroCloud.

Understanding the Cloud

From smartphones and photos to social networks and servers, the term “cloud” seems to be working its way into every conversation and corner of life, but what exactly does it mean to be in the cloud? It boils down to running software on someone else’s servers instead of your own “on-premise” equipment. Those outside servers are owned by tech giants such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, etc., who offer up their infrastructure for rent for a fraction of what it would cost to do the same with on-premise equipment. Not only does it cost less, but the cloud also is more reliable, as your software is now running on the same platform that Amazon and Google use. Reliability on these cloud systems can go well beyond 99.9% uptime, too. IT costs also are drastically reduced, as on-premise equipment is eliminated and replaced with the cloud.

Given the benefits, companies far and wide are migrating to the cloud as a way to lower costs and improve efficiency. To be in the MetroCloud specifically means eliminating upfront capital investments for on-premise SCADA equipment and software, eliminating reoccurring IT costs related to on-premise SCADA equipment and software, enhancing security, providing alarm notification and remote access, and improving reliability.

From Ground to Cloud

To ease the transition for the city of Ottawa, Metropolitan worked with the municipality to take a two-step, transitioned approach for the implementation of MetroCloud SCADA, a remotely hosted SCADA monitoring system. The first step was to rebuild the existing SCADA system communications and improve operator access to the system. By combining 60 years of experience with pump systems and an understanding of associated telemetry communications, the manufacturer formulated a plan to transition away from malfunctioning radio communication and revamp the SCADA system. The team began by replacing the majority of old, barely functioning 900-Mhz and 2.4-Ghz spread spectrum radios with LTE cellular modems. The existing radios were switched over to cell modems without the need to reprogram existing controls, thus providing a quick, seamless communication transition.

With the SCADA communications reconfigured, the team moved to step two: transitioning a small number of municipal water components—three lift stations—to cloud hosting. As planned, access was simplified, information was readily available with just a few screen taps or keystrokes, and in less than one year, the city of Ottawa wanted to incorporate all of its systems into MetroCloud.

Over the next 12 months the city transitioned all eight lift stations, four wells, three booster pump stations, one water treatment plant and one wastewater treatment plant to MetroCloud. When the city was hit by a major tornado in February 2017, communications were sent as planned, allowing the city to remain aware of its water system despite the chaos and destruction that rocked the community.

Security is Priority

When talking about the cloud, security concerns usually are among the first things that come to mind. While it is good to be aware of risks, MetroCloud SCADA puts security first by working to guarantee uptime and restrict access to information. To ensure reliability, all data using this platform is hosted on Amazon cloud servers, with 99.9% uptime and multiple servers in geographically redundant zones, meaning there always is a backup should something go wrong.

Additionally, the system is designed so user equipment never is exposed to the internet. MetroCloud also creates private connections into various cellular providers to use private IPs for cellular communications. Compared to public IP addresses, private IP addresses eliminate exposure of cell modems and the devices behind them to the internet, essentially creating a gated community for information that limits access to only those that should have it. When connecting to MetroCloud via Ethernet connection, VPN tunnels encrypt all data. All remote access into the system also utilizes VPN tunnels to guarantee data is protected from point A to point B. Remote access is available on Android, iOS and Windows platforms.

With all of this being done by the manufacturer’s pump system and control experts, setup is quick and ongoing maintenance is minimal. In addition to the cloud offering easy access, this storage and communication option eliminates the need for dedicated onsite computers or servers and the costs associated with maintaining this added infrastructure, including SCADA software licenses and upgrades. In fact, with free upgrades automatically pushed to the system, there is no IT involvement for most applications.

“Typically, a SCADA system will automate the control process such that plant operators can focus on other tasks. This can significantly reduce operating costs while improving system performance and reliability,” said Gary Scott, Ottawa’s public works director. “In the system designed for Ottawa’s water and wastewater systems, the operators have detailed visual projection of what’s happening within the system right now. Often, costly after-hours alarm callouts can be avoided since the SCADA system indicates the nature and degree of a problem to the operators almost immediately. They also have flexibility to control the equipment as situations deem necessary over an internet connect on a plant computer interface, cell phone or even a tablet.”

SCADA systems can range from basic to complex.

“I would say Ottawa has taken a path somewhere in the middle, where we can make the most of a complex configuration that is both user friendly and requires little maintenance,” Scott said. “Having automatic upgrades also saves both time and money versus calling consultants out for many small update tasks.” 

About the Author

John Bray