OPC Server is a windows application that provides a means of bringing data and information from a wide range of industrial devices and systems into client applications on your windows PC. OPC Server falls under the category of a “Server” application. It is very common to hear the term “client/server application” in use across many software disciplines
and business segments. In the industrial market, it has usually come to mean the sharing of manufacturing or production data between a variety of applications ranging from human machine interface software and data historians, to large MES and ERP applications.
Regardless of the business segment served, client/server applications have one thing in common, a standardized method of sharing data. In the industrial segment many client/server technologies have been developed over the last ten years. Initially some of these technologies were proprietary. In many cases these proprietary client/server architectures were in wide use but remained unavailable to third party applications. Early in the development of windows Microsoft provided a generic client server technology called DDE or Dynamic Data Exchange. DDE did provide a basic architecture that would allow many windows applications from a wide range of vendors to share data, but there was one problem. DDE was not designed for the industrial market; it lacked much of the speed and robustness desired in an industrial setting. However, this did not stop DDE from becoming dominant client/server architecture, largely due to its availability in most windows applications. In time, variations on Microsoft’s DDE were developed by some of the leading vendors in the market.
These variations addressed some of the speed and reliability issues of DDE but many people in the industrial segment agreed that a better system needed to be developed.
OPC (OLE for Process and Control)
In 1994 a group of vendors representing a broad spectrum of disciplines in industrial segment formed what is now known as the OPC Foundation. The OPC Foundation put forth the goal of developing a single client/server specification that would allow any vendor to develop software and applications that could share data in a fast, robust fashion, and do it in a way that would eliminate the proprietary schemes that forced these same vendors to duplicate development efforts. The OPC Foundation developed the first specification
called Data Access Specification 1.0a that was released in early 1996. Using this specification, vendors were able to quickly develop client server software.
A major goal of the OPC Foundation and the Data Access specification was to eliminate the need of client application vendor’s to develop their own proprietary set of communications drivers. For many vendors, the effort required to develop numerous communications drivers outweighed the development effort involved in the client application itself. With the adoption of OPC technology a vendor could now focus their efforts almost exclusively on the development of the client application. The Data Access specification defines how both the client and the server application interface must be constructed.
If the specification is followed properly, a client vendor knows that any OPC server that exists for an industrial device can provide the connectivity needed for data access. Issues like time to market or reliability no longer restrict applications to which any OPC compatible application can address. OPC has given the end user the additional benefit of being able to select the best of breed software to solve application problems. Historically, if the application software did not have the desired communication driver or if the available
driver didn’t perform adequately, the only solution was to try to persuade the application vendor to either develop the desired driver or repair an existing driver. The time required in either of these cases was usually never short. The OPC, the end user is no longer tied to the resource limitations of the client application vendor. The user can now choose from a variety of OPC server vendors to address a new driver requirement or remedy a performance issue.
Equally, the client application vendor can now focus on the continued improvement of their core product without the disruptive effort required to address communication issues and needs. Our goal within the OPC environment is o be a leading provider of the server component of the OPC equation and to do so by providing a product that is reliable and easy to use. This server is built upon years of development efforts in communications driver development and OPC technology.
A lot has been said here about OPC but how does the OPC specification work? The OPC Foundation has provided a good overview of OPC technology. With permission of
the OPC Foundation, we have provided the following section of the Data Access specification.
OPC Data Access Fundamentals
This section introduces OPC Data Access and covers topics that are specific to OPC Data Access.
This specification describes the OPC COM Objects and their interfaces implemented by OPC Servers. An OPC Client can connect to OPC Servers provided by one or more
Different vendors may provide OPC Servers. Vendor supplied code determines the devices and data to which each server has access, the data names, and the details about how the server physically accesses that data. Specifics on naming conventions are supplied in a subsequent section.
OPC Client/Server Relationship
At a high level, an OPC server is comprised of several objects: the server, the group, and the item. The OPC server object maintains information about the
server and serves as a container for OPC group objects. The OPC group object maintains information about itself and provides the mechanism for containing
and logically organizing OPC items.
The OPC Groups provide a way for clients to organize data. For example, the group might represent items in a particular operator display or report. Data can be
read and written. Exception based connections can also be created between the client and the items in the group and can be enabled and disabled as needed. An
OPC client can configure the rate that an OPC server should provide the data changes to the OPC client.
There are two types of groups, public and local (or ‘private’). Public is for sharing across multiple clients, local is local to a client. Refer to the section on public groups for the intent, purpose, and functionality and for further details. There are also specific optional interfaces for the public groups.
Within each Group the client can define one or more OPC Items.
The OPC Items represent connections to data sources within the server. An OPC Item, from the custom interface perspective, is not accessible as an object by an OPC
Client. Therefore, there is no external interface defined for an OPC Item. All access to OPC Items is via an OPC Group object that contains the OPC item, or simply where the OPC Item is defined. Associated with each item is a Value, Quality and Time Stamp. The value is in the form of a VARIANT, and the Quality is similar to that specified by Fieldbus.
Note: The items are not the data sources, they are just connections to them. For example, the tags in a DCS system exist regardless of whether an OPC client is currently accessing them. The OPC Item should be thought of as simply specifying the address of the data, not as the actual physical source of the data that the address references.
Where OPC Fits
Although OPC is primarily designed for accessing data from a networked server, OPC interfaces can be used in many places within an application. At the lowest level they can get raw data from the physical devices into a SCADA or DCS, or from the SCADA or DCS system into the application. The architecture and design makes it possible to construct an OPC Server which allows a client application to access data from many OPC Servers provided by many different OPC vendors running on different nodes via a single object.
OPC Client/Server Relationship
General OPC Architecture and Components
OPC is a specification for two sets of interfaces; the OPC Custom Interfaces and the OPC Automation interfaces. A revised automation interface will be provided with release 2.0 of the OPC specification. This is shown below.
the OPC Interfaces
The OPC Specification specifies COM interfaces (what the interfaces are), not the implementation (not the how of the implementation) of those interfaces. It specifies the behavior that the interfaces are expected to provide to the client applications that use them. Included are descriptions of architectures and interfaces that seemed most appropriate for those architectures. Like all COM implementations, the architecture of OPC is a client-server model where the OPC Server component provides an interface
to the OPC objects and manages them.
There are several unique considerations in implementing an OPC Server. The main issue is the frequency of data transfer over non-sharable communications paths to physical devices. Thus, we expect that the OPC Server will either be a local or remote EXE, which includes code that is responsible for efficient data collection from a physical device.
An OPC client application communicates to an OPC server through the specified OPC custom and automation interfaces. OPC servers must implement the custom interface, and optionally may implement the automation interface. An “InProc” (OPC handler) may be used to marshal the interface and provide the additional Item level functionality of the OPC Automation Interface. Refer to the figure below: Typical OPC Architecture.
Typical OPC Architecture
It is also expected that the server will consolidate and optimize data accesses requested by the various clients to promote efficient communications with the physical device. For inputs (Reads), data returned by the device is buffered either by asynchronous distribution or synchronous collection by various OPC clients. For outputs (writes), the OPC Server updates the physical device data on behalf of OPC Clients.
While the Server is first and foremost an OPC server, it was recognized that a number of legacy applications still depend upon DDE for their underlying client server technology. To addresses these applications the server has been designed to provide the same access to device data via DDE as can be achieved using OPC.