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Trends in Consumer Electronics drive OPC UA Development

by Manny Mandrusiak (Guest Contributor)  |   October, 2009

Ever wonder about how trends in consumer electronics influence trends in other parts of our lives. Take the advances in the recent analog-to-digital conversion in audio and video. In-home entertainment has changed dramatically. Consumers are now able to enjoy a complete theater experience in the comfort of their own home.

Staying Connected
“Staying connected” has an entirely new meaning. Those who travel a lot are used to hauling around laptops and searching for a power outlet to stay connected and access email. With the recent advances in handheld technology consumers can stay connected with business and family directly from cell phones and other handhelds. WiFi connections are abundant, and customers of coffee shops and other retail outlets demand them. The desire to stay continually connected is becoming part of our culture. Just ask anyone who is a purveyor of Facebook or Twitter.

Windows 7, another one....
Just when I thought that I was getting a grip on all of the technological advances in my life that could make my life easier I received an email from Microsoft announcing Windows 7. Another one, and if I hurry I will get a special price from Microsoft. The PR person inside me looked at this marketing campaign and I had to ask myself the question: “What’s the news?” What does Windows 7 offer me that is different? What does it offer me to take away my pain? What does it offer me to make my life or running my business easier? Does this upgrade improve my process? Do I really need to upgrade my copy of Windows? These are the questions that every process control engineer and systems integrator asks themselves every day.

The question that screams to be asked is why? Why would an Engineer want to implement an upgrade when it may not take the system to the next level? Could it be because of marketing influence? We are all human beings after all, and we can all be influenced by a fantastic marketing campaign. Individuals may also be inclined to upgrade simply to remain current, and have the latest and greatest software. At the end of the day consumers are looking for reliable advances in technology that a future facing, and make their lives easier.

OPC UA (Unified Architecture)
At the OPC Foundation we receive a lot of questions like this about OPC UA (Unified Architecture). Is OPC UA simply OPC DA in a different wrapper? As with advances in Microsoft Windows, not every technological advance is on the side of the box. Often time’s advances in security and functionality are powerful, but too small or complex to be stated on the box for consumers.

I was recently conducted a training event in Salt Lake City, UT and had this very question asked of me about OPC UA. The question I was asked was “if OPC UA was actually an advance on OPC technology or simply a new box, with a fancy bow, concealing the same old technology?” To answer the question, OPC UA is an advance on OPC technology. It is the next evolution in the OPC specification and will serve as the foundation for all new specifications in the future.

OPC UA is actually an abstract Framework with a multi-layered architecture where each layer is completely abstracted from its neighboring layers. These layers define the protocols that hit the wire, the security to encode/decode messages containing your data, data-type definitions and much more. With this framework of core services and data-types, one can very easily build upon (inherit) them to add more functionality. This allows OPC UA to combine the best features and functionality from the current (OPC Classic) specifications and takes them to the next level by adding a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), and a whole world of security features to make those die-hard security gurus happy.

Because of the abstract layering of the OPC UA architecture, it will be possible to add new over-the-wire Protocols, to add new Security & Encryption technologies, to add new data types (simple and complex). So as the world evolves and the way we do things changes, OPC UA will be able to advance with it.

OPC UA already encompasses all of the current (Classic) OPC Specifications: OPC DA (Data Access), A&E (Alarms and Events, HDA (Historical Data Access, as well as Commands and complex data. This complexity is made easy for users of OPC UA by providing them with a means to choose the level of functionality that is right for them. OPC UA will provide “Profiles” to enable this customized functionality. Each of the OPC Classic specifications can be considered a “Profile”.

OPC UA will become the “transport”. Other protocols/standards such as BACNet could very easily become a Profile within OPC UA. This would mean that a device could simply expose a UA Server sporting a “BACNet Profile” and any UA Client would be able to consume it’s data.

The addition of web services enables OPC UA to be platform independent, and truly scalable. There has been a huge demand from both end-users and vendors over the last few years to implement OPC on non-Microsoft based computer systems, and embedded devices alike.

OPC UA offers all the functionality that end-users were used to with OPC Classic but without the constraints. Flexibility and scalability are key characteristics for OPC UA. But most importantly, OPC remains an open international standard for reliable interoperability and data exchange.

Imagine a day where inexpensive embedded devices have OPC UA built straight into them. Imagine a day where Linux, MAC and Windows UA products are talking to each other without special configuration, Both of these concepts are already a reality on the open market making the future of OPC UA now!

Oh, and did we forget to mention that OPC UA products built today with today’s technology will still work with those products built in the future? Just as they’ll seamlessly work with the OPC Classic products we’ve all be using for the past decade.

Earlier we spoke about the influence of consumer electronics on the world of industrial technologies. The expectation has been set with respect to consumer electronics and plug-and-play interoperability. Engineers are expecting the same level of interoperability in their industry. OPC UA will continue to provide the standard infrastructure enabling secure and reliable plug-and-play interoperability. OPC UA will also continue to enable end-users to have the ability to pick best-of-breed components to build the systems they want without being locked into one vendor’s proprietary protocol or hardware.

Systems architects and Integrators must choose carefully when advising on system construction. In today’s economy the maximizing of assets is paramount. Systems need to be constructed with not only today’s needs in mind, but also what tomorrows might be.

Looking for more information about OPC Unified Architecture? Check out the latest OPC UA news and developments at the official OPC Foundation website:

Software architects, engineers, and developers looking to stay on the cutting edge of OPC UA can learn the latest skills at the OPC Unified Architecture Developers’ Workshop in New Orleans, USA.

Manny Mandrusiak & Nathan Pocock (OPC Test Lab Director)

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