Historically, Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) have served differing functions and have hence resided in different departments within the utility. The operations side of the utility has always been responsible for execution, monitoring and control of the electric system and involves physical infrastructure that is an integral part of the electric network; this includes generation systems, transmission networks, substations, distribution networks, feeders, meters etc.
IT, on the other hand, is typically a business function primarily responsible for decision making, energy planning operations, and resource and asset allocation. This versatile resource also supports activities related to trading, fuel management, field staff dispatch and customer relationship management. Elements of IT include data and application integration, business intelligence, hardware capability, workflow coordination and reporting.
The fundamental meaning of the convergence of IT and OT is the bringing together of these applications and devices in a completely unprecedented manner. This involves the tying together of systems and technologies that have traditionally operated in isolation. Furthermore, considering the growth in numbers of devices and increased IT and OT functionality, the convergence of the systems involved introduces integration on an unparalleled scale.
What is IT/OT convergence?
IT/OT Convergence is essentially the utilisation of the same infrastructure components and applications by both IT and OT teams within the utility. Within a company, often the same product is used for different purposes, operated by separate teams and possibly with a different set of operating processes. Currently, however, IT and OT teams and functions are increasingly overlapping in many industries and utilities with the result that capabilities that once resided in IT are more often than not appearing in the OT environment, e.g. Internet Protocol (IP) and telecommunications. Conversely, traditional OT applications such as industrial control system (ICS) monitoring are now occurring in IT systems. Hence, as shown in Figure 1, the integration of IT and OT brings together real-time systems, such as SCADA, EMS and DMS, with corporate applications, such as EAM, CIS, AMI, GIS, ERP, MWFM and DRMS.
The integration of operational technologies such as SCADA, Remote Terminal Unit, meters/sensors, smart meters, etc. to work in real-time, or in near to real-time, with IT systems allows organisations the ability to manage and relate data from sensors to actual business applications.
Furthermore, maintaining an accurate real-time view of the network is often difficult for legacy SCADA, DMS and OMS systems. Whereas integration on the front-end for these applications facilitates much needed accurate network modelling.
IT/OT convergence is also a fundamental enabler for organisational live dashboards, which can report relevant information across many scales; and detect unbalanced load flows and outages. In addition, the dashboard will normally have access to systems that can identify faults and automatically switch to different assets to restore service.
The smart grid concept is transforming utility operations at an unprecedented rate and is probably the most significant consideration in bringing IT into the operational environment. This is occurring at an ever-increasing pace and is rapidly blurring the distinction between the two technologies.
Utilities have experienced an exponential growth in both the quantity and quality of IT systems in recent times. These systems facilitate the exchange of information between humans and machines almost instantaneously and are hence a fundamental component of the smart grid. An effective integration of real-time operations with the business decision-making process has the potential to transform utility operations like never before.
The smart grid has the capacity to improve operational efficiency, reduce costs and be more environmentally friendly simply by allowing IT assets to become part of the operational network. Real integration of IT and OT thus enhances opportunities to add more value to the energy supply chain. As such, by its very nature then, a smart grid platform implies the convergence of IT and OT technologies.
Smart metering is a classic example of convergence. The meters themselves are clearly an OT and part of the electricity distribution network, while the meter data management and back office functions are surely IT applications.
The implementation of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) allows utility engineers to see consumption data in 15-minute increments, thereby facilitating activities such as load studies and the sizing of distribution system transformers. Moreover, AMI enables two-way communication with the meter – currently, a growing trend toward the use of TCP/IP technology as a common communication platform for smart meter applications is evident. Utilities can hence deploy multiple communication systems, while using IP technology as a common management platform. Thus measurement, collection, and analysation of energy usage combined with communication to and from metering devices (electricity, gas, heat and water meters), either on request or on a schedule, becomes entirely feasible.
Meter Data Management System (MDMS) is also a major component of smart meter deployment. This software platform receives data from multiple smart meter technologies, and verifies and stores the data. Thereafter, data subsets are delivered to utility operations applications, which include billing, maintenance, outage management etc.
The challenges of IT/OT convergence
Undoubtedly the convergence of IT and OT brings with it many benefits for the utility; however, conversely and in line with most modern technological innovations, several challenges are also immediately apparent. These, which can often involve steep learning curves, will typically include legacy technology, accountability gaps and security risks as outlined below.
Legacy Technology: Many OT devices, currently in operation, are running proprietary software that was used at the time of installation (10 to 15 years ago, or even older) and unlike modern IT devices, are not automatically updated with new software releases and bug fixes. These devices, because of their physical separation from IT networks, were considered secure at the time of installation.
Ownership and Responsibility (Accountability Gaps): The rigid silos between IT and OT departments that have traditionally existed could prove to be the most significant obstacle for utilities to overcome. Issues such as who owns which part of technology, who is responsible for what, and the format of information delivery are crucial aspects. However, well defined standards and common communications channels can certainly help to facilitate solutions in this regard. Security: System security is always a major concern and becomes even more critical with the convergence of IT and OT. The advent of many new endpoints, mostly outside the control of the utility, will certainly increase the risk of the occurrence of cyberattacks. These could prove disastrous in terms of power failures, blackouts and loss of confidential information. A comprehensive approach that considers the entire network, identifying security, patch management and compliance is an essential requirement to address this ever-evolving risk.
In addition to the abovementioned, the process of integrating existing IT systems such as billing management, CRM or ERP with utility OT systems can be time and labour intensive. It is thus imperative that the long-term benefits, together with expected slow return on investment associated with the integration of legacy systems, are clearly understood by utility management teams.
The integration of IT and OT is a crucial aspect for the successful implementation of new technologies under the smart grid umbrella. So much so that IT/OT convergence was included on Gartner’s list of Top 10 Tech Trends Impacting the Utility Industry in 2015.
Smart grid without doubt will enable utilities to better serve their customers in a more economical manner. Most certainly, the evolution toward a smarter grid begins with the awareness of the significance of IT on operational equipment. Hence, it is imperative that the utility long-term roadmap for a smarter grid includes an architecture that embraces the trend toward IT and OT convergence. ESI.
This article is written and made available to ESI Africa for publication courtesy of African Utilities Technology Council (AUTC), a non-profit trade association owned by utilities. Their mission, led by AUTC director Corrie Vermeulen, is to shape the future of utility mission critical technologies by driving innovation, fostering collaboration and influencing public policy.
• How the Convergence of IT and OT Enables Smart Grid Development by Jeff Meyers, P.E.
• IT/OT Convergence Issue Brief – UTC November 2016