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Making the case for the DNP3 Protocol in upstream oil & gas

Anyone who has worked in automation knows that one of the most time-consuming and unpredictable aspects of deploying a system is working with a plethora of equipment from multiple vendors, many times with varying protocols and standards. Historically, the upstream oil and gas industry has used a range of proprietary protocols and ‘standard’ Modbus.

Using a range of protocols means operators must maintain a knowledgebase in-house which can be challenging since many protocols have not been publicly documented or are no longer supported by the original vendor, further complicating matters. Even Modbus, often touted as a ‘standard,’ is interpreted and implemented in many ways, introducing difficult-to-find incompatibilities that can be time-consuming and expensive to locate. In addition to these challenges, there is a growing requirement for cybersecurity hardening to prevent the introduction of rogue devices or software into the network that may compromise control and safety.

These challenges are not new and have already been addressed in other automation sectors where reliability and security are critical. The time has come for the oil and gas industry to consider making these same changes.

One protocol worthy of serious consideration is DNP3 which is based on existing IEC standards and was initially developed by Harris Distributed Automation Products. In 1993, responsibility for the standard was transferred to the DNP3 User Group which is composed of vendors, integrators, and end users of the protocol. Initially developed to meet the requirements of the electric utility industry, the protocol has been expanded and extended formally to meet the requirements of the transportation, water/wastewater, and oil and gas industries.

The DNP3 protocol is now rapidly replacing Modbus as the protocol of choice for those who appreciate its many advantages, including:

  • The ease of deploying an open, standard protocol, 
  • Interoperability and cost savings, and
  • High reliability and increased performance in the SCADA communications network.

Another significant advantage is the secure authentication that the DNP3 protocol provides, ensuring that all participants in a DNP3 network are authenticated and ‘known’ to each other. Secure authentication prevents the introduction of rogue devices or software onto the system while removing the significant overhead that end-to-end encryption requires.

Major oil and gas companies outside of North America are now specifying the DNP3 protocol for both RTU and SCADA products, and it is time for vendors to promote the advantages of this protocol in the North American market, where there is still a high proportion of legacy protocols. Major vendors such as Schneider and Emerson are starting this drive, and Emerson’s recent introduction of the FB1000 and FB2000 Series Flow Computers and FB3000 RTU (where DNP3 is the primary device protocol) are a major step forward. These efforts to support the adoption of DNP3 will help oil and gas producers achieve critical goals, including better performance, interoperability, and reduced costs. 

To learn how the DNP3 protocol is helping users achieve the promised goals of secure, reliable communications while reducing integration risks and costs, read our article Achieving Secure, Reliable Communications with the DNP3 Protocol.


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