Assessing Open Source Software for Industrial Use

The “Automation World Gets Your Questions Answered” podcast gets insights from Benson Hougland and Terry Orchard of Opto 22 about the practical realities of using open source software for SCADA applications.

Benson Hougland and Terry Orchard of Opto 22
Benson Hougland and Terry Orchard of Opto 22

For many people in industry, open source software remains a bit of an enigma when it comes to its use in production operations. After all, given industry’s concerns about safety, reliability, and accountability, how could a user ever rely on community-developed technology that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance.

As sketchy as this may sound to an uninitiated user, the reality is that open source software is not only being applied by larger numbers of manufacturers, it is also being integrated into the technologies created by automation suppliers.

To learn more about this, we connected with Benson Hougland and Terry Orchard of Opto 22, to answer a reader question about the suitability of open source software for supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) applications in a recent podcast episode. Opto 22 is a supplier of industrial controllers, I/O, and software.

“Opto’s position on open source software for industrial use is that we’re huge proponents; we embrace it,” said Hougland. “Open source software gives us lots of flexibility in the types of solutions we can provide, whether its SCADA, process control, or discrete applications.”

As a member of the Linux Foundation and a future member of the Eclipse Foundation (both open source software groups), Opto 22 makes extensive use of technology in its products, Hougland said. “For example, in groov EPIC [Opto 22’s new Edge Programmable Industrial Controller], we use the Linux operating system with RTR extensions, SQLite—an open source database, Jedi web servers, Node Red, MQTT, and Sparkplug B," he said. "All are open source and built into EPIC to give customers an opportunity to do new things with SCADA, Internet of Things, or traditional automation applications.”

Hougland noted that Opto 22 is not the first industrial technology supplier to embrace open source—after all, anything communicated over TCP/IP is open source. “We do this because customers want it and because of the flexibility it gives us as a developer,” he explained.

He explained that the industrial market isn’t so much demanding that companies like Opto 22 offer open source software, but “they are demanding new and exciting technologies to address a number of problems in automation, particularly in SCADA communications.”

As a manufacturer, if you’re looking to assess open source technologies, Hougland highlighted two primary options. First, visit SourceForge.net for kits and review their ratings and, second, work with a vendor when adopting and incorporating open source technologies. If you choose the second option, you can look at the vendor to assess their support for the open source technologies they use.

“I also look at what kinds of problems and successes people have had with specific open source software,” added Orchard. “There’s lots of posts in forums and blogs about what users have chosen to do and how they’ve gone about it. That can be a good source of information, and this is not just information from hobbyists. There are high-level discussions on industrial use of MQTT, for example.”

The bottom line with open source technology for industrial use is that assessing it properly comes down to research, just like with commercial applications, said Hougland. “With open source the difference is where the information comes from. It won’t come from the vendor [embedding the technology], it’ll come from the open source community such as Tango, Sardina Systems, OpenSCADA, and Rapid SCADA. Get on their websites and get involved to figure out which open source kits are the most successful and are being continually supported. Look for the last activity on their forum, or when the last build was made so you can get a feel for the longevity of the organization (behind the software) and their support for the package.”

Orchard advised that it’s a good idea to develop a close relationship with your IT department around this process. “As you do your research, working with IT can help you better understand what you’re looking for. For example, is certification important to your IT team? Knowing that kind of information can drive a lot of decisions.”

Also look at who else is supporting these open source SCADA applications, such as members of Linux or Eclipse Foundations. “Eclipse manages a lot of projects, and they have specific project areas for Industrial Internet of Things software like Paho and Tahu for MQTT and Sparkplug B. These are both open source technologies that are backed by a big organization. That can give a user a lot of confidence that there’s a support mechanism and community behind them.”

To hear this podcast episode, visit the Automation World Gets Your Questions Answered” podcast site. Our podcasts are also accessible on iTunes, Spotify, and other major podcast platforms; to find them, search for “Automation World Gets Your Questions Answered” and be sure to subscribe to be notified when new episodes are posted.

Companies in this article
More in Control