The main use case for OPC standards is the online data exchange between devices and HMI or SCADA systems using Data Access functionality. In this use case the device data is provided by an OPC server and is consumed by an OPC client integrated into the HMI or SCADA system. OPC DA provides functionality to browse through a hierarchical namespaces containing data items and to read, write and to monitor these items for data changes. The classic OPC standards are based on Microsoft COM/DCOM technology for the communication between software components from different vendors. Therefore classic OPC server and clients are restricted to Windows PC based automation systems.
OPC UA incorporates all features of classic OPC standards like OPC DA, A&E and HDA but defines platform independent communication mechanisms and generic, extensible and object-oriented modelling capabilities for the information a system wants to expose.
The OPC UA network communication part defines different mechanisms optimised for different use cases. The first version of OPC UA is defining an optimised binary TCP protocol for high performance intranet communication as well as a mapping to accepted internet standards like Web Services. The abstract communication model does not depend on a specific protocol mapping and allows adding new protocols in the future. Features like security, access control and reliability are directly built into the transport mechanisms. Based on the platform independence of the protocols, OPC UA servers and clients can be directly integrated into devices and controllers.
The OPC UA Information Model provides a standard way for Servers to expose Objects to Clients. Objects in OPC UA terms are composed of other Objects, Variables and Methods. OPC UA also allows relationships to other Objects to be expressed.
The set of Objects and related information that an OPC UA Server makes available to Clients is referred to as its AddressSpace. The elements of the OPC UA Object Model are represented in the AddressSpace as a set of Nodes described by Attributes and interconnected by References. OPC UA defines eight classes of Nodes to represent AddressSpace components. The classes are Object, Variable, Method, ObjectType, DataType, ReferenceType and View. Each NodeClass has a defined set of Attributes.
Methods are used to represent commands or services of a system.
Properties are Server-defined characteristics of Objects, DataVariables and other Nodes. Properties are not allowed to have Properties defined for them. An example for Properties of Objects is the PowerlinkAttributes Property of the PowerlinkVariableType.
DataVariables represent the contents of an Object. DataVariables may have component DataVariables. This is typically used by Servers to expose individual elements of arrays and structures. This specification uses DataVariables to represent data like the CumulativeCount_U32 of a DLL_ErrorCntRec_Type Object.