Core Concepts of OPC UA

In one sentence, OPC UA (ISO 62541) defines a framework for object-oriented information models (typically representing a physical device) that live in an OPC UA server and a protocol with which a client can interact with the information model over the network (read and write variables, call methods, instantiate and delete objects, subscribe to change notifications, and so on).

This Section introduces the core concepts of OPC UA. For the full specification see the OPC UA standard at https://reference.opcfoundation.org/.

Protocol

We focus on the TCP-based binary protocol since it is by far the most common transport layer for OPC UA. The general concepts also translate to HTTP and SOAP-based communication defined in the standard. Communication in OPC UA is best understood by starting with the following key principles:

Request / Response

All communication is based on the Request/Response pattern. Only clients can send a request to a server. And servers can only send responses to a matching request. Often the server is hosted close to a (physical) device, such as a sensor or a machine tool.

Asynchronous Responses

A server does not have to immediately respond to requests and responses may be sent in a different order. This keeps the server responsive when it takes time until a specific request has been processed (e.g. a method call or when reading from a sensor with delay). Subscriptions (push-notifications) are implemented via special requests where the response is delayed until a notification is published.

Note

OPC UA PubSub (Part 14 of the standard) is an extension for the integration of many-to-many communication with OPC UA. PubSub does not use the client-server protocol. Rather, OPC UA PubSub integrates with either existing broker-based protocols such as MQTT, UDP-multicast or Ethernet-based communication. Typically an OPC UA server (accessed via the client-server protocol) is used to configured PubSub communication.

Note that the client-server protocol also supports Subscriptions for one-to-one communication and does not depend on PubSub for this feature.

A client-server connection for the OPC UA binary protocol consists of three nested levels: The stateful TCP connection, a SecureChannel and the Session. For full details, see Part 6 of the OPC UA standard.

TCP Connection

The TCP connection is opened to the corresponding hostname and port with an initial handshake of HEL/ACK messages. The handshake establishes the basic settings of the connection, such as the maximum message length. The Reverse Connect extension of OPC UA allows the server to initiate the underlying TCP connection.

SecureChannel

SecureChannels are created on top of the raw TCP connection. A SecureChannel is established with an OpenSecureChannel request and response message pair. Attention! Even though a SecureChannel is mandatory, encryption might still be disabled. The SecurityMode of a SecureChannel can be either None, Sign, or SignAndEncrypt. As of version 0.2 of open62541, message signing and encryption is still under ongoing development.

With message signing or encryption enabled, the OpenSecureChannel messages are encrypted using an asymmetric encryption algorithm (public-key cryptography) 1. As part of the OpenSecureChannel messages, client and server establish a common secret over an initially unsecure channel. For subsequent messages, the common secret is used for symmetric encryption, which has the advantage of being much faster.

Different SecurityPolicies – defined in part 7 of the OPC UA standard – specify the algorithms for asymmetric and symmetric encryption, encryption key lengths, hash functions for message signing, and so on. Example SecurityPolicies are None for transmission of cleartext and Basic256Sha256 which mandates a variant of RSA with SHA256 certificate hashing for asymmetric encryption and AES256 for symmetric encryption.

The possible SecurityPolicies of a server are described with a list of Endpoints. An endpoint jointly defines the SecurityMode, SecurityPolicy and means for authenticating a session (discussed in the next section) in order to connect to a certain server. The GetEndpoints service returns a list of available endpoints. This service can usually be invoked without a session and from an unencrypted SecureChannel. This allows clients to first discover available endpoints and then use an appropriate SecurityPolicy that might be required to open a session.

Session

Sessions are created on top of a SecureChannel. This ensures that users may authenticate without sending their credentials, such as username and password, in cleartext. Currently defined authentication mechanisms are anonymous login, username/password, Kerberos and x509 certificates. The latter requires that the request message is accompanied by a signature to prove that the sender is in possession of the private key with which the certificate was created.

There are two message exchanges required to establish a session: CreateSession and ActicateSession. The ActivateSession service can be used to switch an existing session to a different SecureChannel. This is important, for example when the connection broke down and the existing session is reused with a new SecureChannel.

1

This entails that the client and server exchange so-called public keys. The public keys might come with a certificate from a key-signing authority or be verified against an external key repository. But we will not discuss certificate management in detail in this section.

Structure of a protocol message

Consider the example OPC UA binary conversation in Figure Fig. 1, recorded and displayed with Wireshark.

OPC UA conversation in Wireshark

Fig. 1 OPC UA conversation displayed in Wireshark

The top part of the Wireshark window shows the messages from the conversation in order. The green line contains the applied filter. Here, we want to see the OPC UA protocol messages only. The first messages (from TCP packets 49 to 56) show the client opening an unencrypted SecureChannel and retrieving the server’s endpoints. Then, starting with packet 63, a new connection and SecureChannel are created in conformance with one of the endpoints. On top of this SecureChannel, the client can then create and activate a session. The following ReadRequest message is selected and covered in more detail in the bottom windows.

The bottom left window shows the structure of the selected ReadRequest message. The purpose of the message is invoking the Read service. The message is structured into a header and a message body. Note that we do not consider encryption or signing of messages here.

Message Header

As stated before, OPC UA defines an asynchronous protocol. So responses may be out of order. The message header contains some basic information, such as the length of the message, as well as necessary information to relate messages to a SecureChannel and each request to the corresponding response. “Chunking” refers to the splitting and reassembling of messages that are longer than the maximum network packet size.

Message Body

Every OPC UA service has a signature in the form of a request and response data structure. These are defined according to the OPC UA protocol type system. See especially the auto-generated type definitions for the data types corresponding to service requests and responses. The message body begins with the identifier of the following data type. Then, the main payload of the message follows.

The bottom right window shows the binary payload of the selected ReadRequest message. The message header is highlighted in light-grey. The message body in blue highlighting shows the encoded ReadRequest data structure.

Information Modelling

Information modelling in OPC UA combines concepts from object-orientation and semantic modelling. At the core, an OPC UA information model is a graph consisting of Nodes and References between them.

Nodes

There are eight possible NodeClasses for Nodes (Variable, VariableType, Object, ObjectType, ReferenceType, DataType, Method, View). The NodeClass defines the attributes a Node can have.

References

References are links between Nodes. References are typed (refer to a ReferenceType) and directed.

The original source for the following information is Part 3 of the OPC UA specification (https://reference.opcfoundation.org/Core/Part3/).

Each Node is identified by a unique (within the server) NodeId and carries different attributes depending on the NodeClass. These attributes can be read (and sometimes also written) via the OPC UA protocol. The protocol further allows the creation and deletion of Nodes and References at runtime. But this is not supported by all servers.

Reference are triples of the form (source-nodeid, referencetype-nodeid, target-nodeid). (The target-nodeid is actually an ExpandedNodeId which is a NodeId that can additionally point to a remote server.) An example reference between nodes is a hasTypeDefinition reference between a Variable and its VariableType. Some ReferenceTypes are hierarchical and must not form directed loops. See the section on ReferenceTypes for more details on possible references and their semantics.

The following table (adapted from Part 3 of the specification) shows which attributes are mandatory (M), optional (O) or not defined for each NodeClass. In open62541 all optional attributes are defined - with sensible defaults if users do not change them.

Table 1 Node attributes for the different NodeClasses

Attribute

DataType

Variable

Variable­Type

Object

Object­Type

Reference­Type

Data­Type

Method

View

NodeId

NodeId

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

NodeClass

NodeClass

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

BrowseName

QualifiedName

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

DisplayName

LocalizedText

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

Description

LocalizedText

O

O

O

O

O

O

O

O

WriteMask

UInt32 (Write Masks)

O

O

O

O

O

O

O M

O

UserWriteMask

UInt32

O

O

O

O

O

O

O

O

IsAbstract

Boolean

M

M

M

M

Symmetric

Boolean

M

InverseName

LocalizedText

O

ContainsNoLoops

Boolean

M

EventNotifier

Byte (EventNotifier)

M

M

M

Value

Variant

M

O

DataType

NodeId

M

M

ValueRank

Int32 (ValueRank)

M

M

M

ArrayDimensions

[UInt32]

O

O

AccessLevel

Byte (Access Level Masks)

M

M

UserAccessLevel

Byte

M

MinimumSamplingInterval

Double

O

Historizing

Boolean

M

Executable

Boolean

M

UserExecutable

Boolean

M

DataTypeDefinition

DataTypeDefinition

O

Each attribute is referenced by a numerical Attribute Id.

Some numerical attributes are used as bitfields or come with special semantics. In particular, see the sections on Access Level Masks, Write Masks, ValueRank and EventNotifier.

New attributes in the standard that are still unsupported in open62541 are RolePermissions, UserRolePermissions, AccessRestrictions and AccessLevelEx.

VariableNode

Variables store values in a DataValue together with metadata for introspection. Most notably, the attributes data type, value rank and array dimensions constrain the possible values the variable can take on.

Variables come in two flavours: properties and datavariables. Properties are related to a parent with a hasProperty reference and may not have child nodes themselves. Datavariables may contain properties (hasProperty) and also datavariables (hasComponents).

All variables are instances of some VariableTypeNode in return constraining the possible data type, value rank and array dimensions attributes.

Data Type

The (scalar) data type of the variable is constrained to be of a specific type or one of its children in the type hierarchy. The data type is given as a NodeId pointing to a DataTypeNode in the type hierarchy. See the Section DataTypeNode for more details.

If the data type attribute points to UInt32, then the value attribute must be of that exact type since UInt32 does not have children in the type hierarchy. If the data type attribute points Number, then the type of the value attribute may still be UInt32, but also Float or Byte.

Consistency between the data type attribute in the variable and its VariableTypeNode is ensured.

ValueRank

This attribute indicates whether the value attribute of the variable is an array and how many dimensions the array has. It may have the following values:

  • n >= 1: the value is an array with the specified number of dimensions

  • n =  0: the value is an array with one or more dimensions

  • n = -1: the value is a scalar

  • n = -2: the value can be a scalar or an array with any number of dimensions

  • n = -3: the value can be a scalar or a one dimensional array

Some helper macros for ValueRanks are defined here.

The consistency between the value rank attribute of a VariableNode and its VariableTypeNode is tested within the server.

Array Dimensions

If the value rank permits the value to be a (multi-dimensional) array, the exact length in each dimensions can be further constrained with this attribute.

  • For positive lengths, the variable value must have a dimension length less or equal to the array dimension length defined in the VariableNode.

  • The dimension length zero is a wildcard and the actual value may have any length in this dimension. Note that a value (variant) must have array dimensions that are positive (not zero).

Consistency between the array dimensions attribute in the variable and its VariableTypeNode is ensured. However, we consider that an array of length zero (can also be a null-array with undefined length) has implicit array dimensions [0,0,...]. These always match the required array dimensions.

VariableTypeNode

VariableTypes are used to provide type definitions for variables. VariableTypes constrain the data type, value rank and array dimensions attributes of variable instances. Furthermore, instantiating from a specific variable type may provide semantic information. For example, an instance from MotorTemperatureVariableType is more meaningful than a float variable instantiated from BaseDataVariable.

ObjectNode

Objects are used to represent systems, system components, real-world objects and software objects. Objects are instances of an object type and may contain variables, methods and further objects.

ObjectTypeNode

ObjectTypes provide definitions for Objects. Abstract objects cannot be instantiated. See Node Lifecycle: Constructors, Destructors and Node Contexts for the use of constructor and destructor callbacks.

ReferenceTypeNode

Each reference between two nodes is typed with a ReferenceType that gives meaning to the relation. The OPC UA standard defines a set of ReferenceTypes as a mandatory part of OPC UA information models.

  • Abstract ReferenceTypes cannot be used in actual references and are only used to structure the ReferenceTypes hierarchy

  • Symmetric references have the same meaning from the perspective of the source and target node

The figure below shows the hierarchy of the standard ReferenceTypes (arrows indicate a hasSubType relation). Refer to Part 3 of the OPC UA specification for the full semantics of each ReferenceType.

digraph tree {

node [height=0, shape=box, fillcolor="#E5E5E5", concentrate=true]

references [label="References\n(Abstract, Symmetric)"]
hierarchical_references [label="HierarchicalReferences\n(Abstract)"]
references -> hierarchical_references

nonhierarchical_references [label="NonHierarchicalReferences\n(Abstract, Symmetric)"]
references -> nonhierarchical_references

haschild [label="HasChild\n(Abstract)"]
hierarchical_references -> haschild

aggregates [label="Aggregates\n(Abstract)"]
haschild -> aggregates

organizes [label="Organizes"]
hierarchical_references -> organizes

hascomponent [label="HasComponent"]
aggregates -> hascomponent

hasorderedcomponent [label="HasOrderedComponent"]
hascomponent -> hasorderedcomponent

hasproperty [label="HasProperty"]
aggregates -> hasproperty

hassubtype [label="HasSubtype"]
haschild -> hassubtype

hasmodellingrule [label="HasModellingRule"]
nonhierarchical_references -> hasmodellingrule

hastypedefinition [label="HasTypeDefinition"]
nonhierarchical_references -> hastypedefinition

hasencoding [label="HasEncoding"]
nonhierarchical_references -> hasencoding

hasdescription [label="HasDescription"]
nonhierarchical_references -> hasdescription

haseventsource [label="HasEventSource"]
hierarchical_references -> haseventsource

hasnotifier [label="HasNotifier"]
hierarchical_references -> hasnotifier

generatesevent [label="GeneratesEvent"]
nonhierarchical_references -> generatesevent

alwaysgeneratesevent [label="AlwaysGeneratesEvent"]
generatesevent -> alwaysgeneratesevent

{rank=same hierarchical_references nonhierarchical_references}
{rank=same generatesevent haseventsource hasmodellingrule
           hasencoding hassubtype}
{rank=same alwaysgeneratesevent hasproperty}

}

The ReferenceType hierarchy can be extended with user-defined ReferenceTypes. Many Companion Specifications for OPC UA define new ReferenceTypes to be used in their domain of interest.

For the following example of custom ReferenceTypes, we attempt to model the structure of a technical system. For this, we introduce two custom ReferenceTypes. First, the hierarchical contains ReferenceType indicates that a system (represented by an OPC UA object) contains a component (or subsystem). This gives rise to a tree-structure of containment relations. For example, the motor (object) is contained in the car and the crankshaft is contained in the motor. Second, the symmetric connectedTo ReferenceType indicates that two components are connected. For example, the motor’s crankshaft is connected to the gear box. Connections are independent of the containment hierarchy and can induce a general graph-structure. Further subtypes of connectedTo could be used to differentiate between physical, electrical and information related connections. A client can then learn the layout of a (physical) system represented in an OPC UA information model based on a common understanding of just two custom reference types.

DataTypeNode

DataTypes represent simple and structured data types. DataTypes may contain arrays. But they always describe the structure of a single instance. In open62541, DataTypeNodes in the information model hierarchy are matched to UA_DataType type descriptions for Generic Type Handling via their NodeId.

Abstract DataTypes (e.g. Number) cannot be the type of actual values. They are used to constrain values to possible child DataTypes (e.g. UInt32).

MethodNode

Methods define callable functions and are invoked using the Call service. MethodNodes may have special properties (variable children with a hasProperty reference) with the QualifiedName (0, "InputArguments") and (0, "OutputArguments"). The input and output arguments are both described via an array of UA_Argument. While the Call service uses a generic array of Variant for input and output, the actual argument values are checked to match the signature of the MethodNode.

Note that the same MethodNode may be referenced from several objects (and object types). For this, the NodeId of the method and of the object providing context is part of a Call request message.

ViewNode

Each View defines a subset of the Nodes in the AddressSpace. Views can be used when browsing an information model to focus on a subset of nodes and references only. ViewNodes can be created and be interacted with. But their use in the Browse service is currently unsupported in open62541.