OPC (Open Platform Communications) is a machine to machine communication protocol for industrial automation. In its simplest form it works like this:
An OPC server defines a set of variables within a directory tree-like hierarchy forming namespaces. Each variable has a data type like integer, boolean, real, string and a default value.
One or many OPC clients connect to the OPC server via a TCP based binary protocol, usually on port 4840. The clients can read and write the OPC variables provided by the server. Clients can also monitor OPC variables for changes so that you don’t have to poll the variables. In code this is usually done by registering a callback function that gets executed when the monitored variable changes.
A simple communication pattern between two OPC clients that we have used in OPC based interfaces is a handshake. This can either be a two-way handshake or a three-way handshake. The two-way handshake is in fact just an acknowledgement: One OPC client sets the value of a variable, the other client reads the variable and resets the value to the default value to confirm that it has read the variable. If you do not want to use the default value to indicate a read confirmation you can also use another variable as a confirmation flag. In a three-way handshake the first client also confirms the confirmation.
The current specification of OPC is OPC UA (Unified Architecture) by the OPC Foundation. It covers a lot more functionality than what is described above. It’s a unified successor to various OPC Classic specifications like OPC DA, A&E and HDA. If you want to get started with OPC UA development you can use one of the many client and server SDKs and toolkits for various programming languages.