Platform dynamics: OPC Classic vs. OPC UA

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Recently, I had to dig into OPC Classic vs. OPC UA specifications, which are part of a series of frameworks for industrial interoperability. Yes, the reading on this topic is very dry, but it points to an ongoing shift in the way PLCs–and machinery they control–are connected to applications, data management tools, and each other.

The quick history: OPC (OLE for Process Control) was the 1990s love child of a team at Microsoft and various industrial automation vendors. Novotek outlines some of the technology history.

Microsoft was actually pushing OLE in various industrial and business segments–this ancient article from my old employer Computerworld shows MS getting three dozen players in CAD lined up behind The Borg in providing OLE-compliant software.

It’s important to note that Bill Gates circa 1995 wasn’t a soft and cuddly figure like MIcrosoft’s current CEO, Satya Nadella. Gates was all about platform control, something he had engineered so well with the Windows-dominated PC platform, with some timely incompetence from IBM. Gates wanted to extend control to profitable verticals–even if MS didn’t write the applications, with OPC they could still dictate the platform architecture to other vendors and thus encourage deep-pocketed business and industrial companies to sign up for Windows NT and other Microsoft products and services.

Stacking up the specs: OPC Classic vs. OPC UA

OPC Classic flavors (including OPC DA and HDA) ruled the roost for more than a decade. Besides being Windows-centric, they also used Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM) for data transportation, which could be difficult to configure. In the late 1990s, the OPC Foundation was established at ISA Chicago and began work on creating a new set of specifications, including OPC UA. Benefits of the new spec would include:

  • Support for operating systems other than Windows

  • Ability to integrate open source contributions

  • Support for a wide range of hardware platforms

  • Web services instead of DCOM

  • Improved security features

  • Better networking support

The OPC Foundation is now making a play for OPC UA to become a “universal protocol” for IIoT/industrial connectivity and Industry 4.0.

Endpoint: After reading this, half of you are probably saying “who cares?” while the other half wants to school me on some obscure yet important technical detail that I missed.

But there’s a bigger lesson here: Companies gain power and profit by controlling platforms and associated standards, and can set the stage for control for years. Microsoft wanted Windows and related software and services to dominate the industrial market, and its actions to steer development of OPC Classic standards helped it achieve control over the market for industrial automation software.

Looking to the future of IoT and connected industry, the battles over communications standards and advances in artificial intelligence will determine which companies have control over the next 10-15 years. Specifications could end up looking more like OPC Classic, with dominance by a single powerful company … or they could be more open, like the OPC UA model. Time will tell …

This is an excerpt from a previous edition of the Priority Payload Report (PPR) newsletter. To get exclusive news, analysis, and interviews from PPR every other week, sign up for the PPR newsletter now! The first 30 days are free and you can cancel at any time for a pro-rated refund.