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Why OPC UA has become indispensable in the industrial environment

OPC UA is becoming increasingly popular. With the advancing digitalization in the industrial environment, the need for universal communication protocols is increasing. This allows machine data to be made easily available. With the OPC UA standard, the OPC Foundation has specified just such a communication protocol, which has become indispensable in many areas. In this article, we want to take a closer look at the success factors.

1.  Platform independence

A key advantage of OPC UA is its platform independence. While the old OPC standard was still based on Windows and COM/DCOM, OPC UA is independent of this and can therefore be used on different hardware platforms and operating systems (e.g. Linux, Windows, Android, ...). Thanks to these possibilities, OPC UA client and server applications can run and exchange data both at process level and in the cloud.

2. All leading manufacturers are represented

The OPC Foundation unites almost all leading manufacturers from the industry. This shows that these companies see great potential in OPC UA, at least for the time being. The broad product range also reflects this picture. For example, all common control systems have their own integrated OPC UA server.

3. Communication across system boundaries

The platform independence of OPC UA described above makes it possible to use OPC UA applications at all levels of the automation pyramid. In addition, the use of standard UDP and TCP ports makes it possible to communicate with OPC UA across borders in the existing network infrastructure.

This means that both vertical and horizontal communication can be realized via OPC UA.

4. Generic information model

Another reason for the success of OPC UA is the generic information model. This model is used to define universally valid information such as data types or variable types that are interpreted in the same way by all OPC UA applications. This makes it possible for two machines to communicate with each other (e.g. query occupancy status) without the need for human intervention. This information model contains various object and variable types, data types, events and methods (Data Access, Alarms & Conditions, Historical Access).

5. Companion Specifications

OPC UA enables an extension of the OPC UA information model with the help of Companion Specifications. For special problems or subject areas (such as packaging machines) from industry, there are individual working groups that deal with the creation of Companion Specifications. These Companion Specifications contain abstract descriptions of components / systems / machines so that the additional information and types ensure interoperability between different manufacturers and devices.

6. Security

As a communication protocol for industrial systems, OPC UA also includes various security mechanisms. These include authentication, authorization, encrypted communication and ensuring data integrity through signatures. There are also specified audit mechanisms that an OPC UA application can implement.

OPC UA does not reinvent anything here, but uses existing and proven security mechanisms such as TLS, HTTPS, x509 certificates or JSON web tokens.

The German Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) reviewed the OPC UA specification back in 2016 and updated this review in 2022. In both examinations, the BSI was unable to identify any systematic security gaps, but merely made recommendations for an optimal configuration.

7. Extensibility

In addition to the standardization of a uniform information model and types via the various Companion Specifications, OPC UA offers full flexibility to extend this with your own types and information so that your own special cases can also be covered.

 

8. Ongoing further development

With the help of working groups, OPC UA is continuously expanding and improving its specifications. There are already several versions of the individual OPC UA core specifications. In addition, new Companion Specifications or additional specifications such as OPC UA FX are constantly being developed by the many members of the OPC Foundation.

About the author

 

Fabian Rosenfelder is a passionate technical computer scientist. As a senior developer, he has focused on software development for embedded Linux, OPC UA and C++. He currently supports our customers in the development of OPC UA servers, for example for high-performance real-time control systems. 

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