IoT vs. SCADA. What’s the difference?

December 12, 2023
New internet-based systems are transforming SCADA, but some old challenges remain.

Much about industrial data collection has changed in the past few decades. However, nothing holds more promise (or hype) than the Internet of Things (IoT), also known as the Industrial IoT (IIoT). For supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) engineers who cut their teeth on programmable logic controller (PLC) stacks and pre-internet SCADA, IoT might look like the latest trend. But what if something different is going on here?

SCADA – a definition

For those unfamiliar with the details of industrial computing solutions, SCADA systems control industrial equipment and read measurements from these operations. Borrowing from a recent blog post, SCADA systems perform the following:

  • Plant and process system monitoring
  • Industrial process and machine control (manual and automated)
  • Data collection and analysis
  • Alarm monitoring and notification
  • Reporting (real-time and historical)

SCADA systems are nearly universal in today’s manufacturing and utilities sectors, where they are used to monitor and optimize the performance of industrial processes.

IoT – a definition

According to Wikipedia “the Internet of things (IoT) describes the network of physical objects—“things”—that are embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for the purpose of connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over the Internet.”

IoT systems in an industrial setting perform the following:

  • Plant and process system monitoring
  • Industrial process and machine control (manual and automated)
  • Data collection and analysis
  • Alarm monitoring and notification
  • Reporting (real-time and historical)

You’ll note that the lists of use cases for SCADA and IoT are identical. That is because these distinct solution categories perform the same essential functions. So how are they different?

SCADA vs. IoT – high-level differences

To start with, SCADA and IoT employ different technologies to transfer data from the plant floor to the computers of the central control system. Some of the key differences are summarized in the table below.

Table of differences between SCADA and Industrial IOT

As the above table indicates, IoT provides more open standards, more interoperability, more ease in adding and modifying installations, and access to cloud-based resources.

Is IoT too good to be true? The hype factor

If you’re reading this thinking that IoT sounds like amazing technology, and that all SCADA systems should be replaced with IoT, then you’ve definitely bought into the hype.

In case you’re not familiar with Gartner’s hype cycle, it’s a way of tracking adoption, expectations and the general zeitgeist for new technologies. According to Gartner, technologies follow a predictable pattern of adoption, beginning with an initial burst of excitement that leads to hype (hence the name). When everyone is initially talking about a new technology, chances are they have unrealistic expectations about what it can deliver. When this early spike in interest wanes, we end up in the trough of disillusionment, out of which true innovators finally deliver real tools and products that customers want to buy. Virtually every new technology follows this curve.

So where are IoT-based technologies on this cycle? Well… they’re looking a little hyped.

IOT hype cycle 2020

The drivers of disillusionment with IoT

If most of the IoT technologies in the above chart are hyped, what does this mean for someone looking to replace their legacy SCADA system? Should they be skeptical about the promises of IoT? Let’s dig into what exactly is getting hyped, and what kind of impact it might have on your SCADA operations.

For starters, hype is typically based on unrealistic expectations. So, if you believe that an IoT solution will solve all the problems you’re experiencing with your existing SCADA system, you might be in trouble. Alternatively, if you are pursuing an IoT solution without a clear understanding of the business problem you’re trying to solve, you might also face challenges.

In general, today’s IoT implementations seem to face the same issues that plagued IT projects in the past. Poor planning, a lack of clear business objectives, a lack of experience—these are all common reasons why IoT projects are not successful.

In fact, there are strikingly similar statistics between IoT project failures and IT project failures. In a recent article from IoT Now, 60% of IoT projects fail at proof-of-concept, and 74% are not successful. The typical failure rate for Business Intelligence (BI) projects is between 70% and 80%, according to Gartner.

Coincidence? We think not. The same factors that affect the success of a new data initiative also affect the success of a new IoT project. Plus, they both work with a lot of data, processes and reporting. Good practices are good practices in both realms. If you don’t adhere to them, your deployment is likely to fail regardless of the technology you’ve chosen to implement.

IoT is the way forward

As the industrial use cases for SCADA vs. IoT are almost the same, why would anyone with a legacy SCADA system consider moving to newer IoT technology in the first place? The answer is the promise offered by the “internet” aspect of IoT. Despite being vulnerable to the same issues as other IT deployments, internet-based technologies are generally more open, easier to integrate and, because they are cloud-based, easier to scale. Legacy SCADA, by contrast is closed, localized and comparatively difficult to update.

As companies make changes to existing SCADA implementations, they are likely to switch over to IoT versions. Greenfield operations will almost certainly go with IoT solutions from the start, because they’re easier to deploy, modify and scale up or down.

Bottom line – SCADA is being transformed to power tomorrow’s control centers.

Companies will still need control systems to monitor and manage their equipment; however, the tools with which they do this will become more internet-based, more cloud-based, and capable of managing even more data. The underlying business case for legacy SCADA systems established decades ago still applies, but the way they are implemented will change dramatically in the coming years, thanks in part to the innovations of IoT.


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