There is an old saying about opposites attracting and there is an example of that concept right in the grid’s networking. Those two opposites are information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT). IT sits at one end of the digital grid as a business application and OT sits at the other end as an asset oriented application. These two platforms have been operating separately from each other for decades. In many cases they’re even separated with an air-gap (computer-speak for physically isolated).
The most popular technical term for joining of these two systems is an IT/OT convergence. A convergence sounds more like an astrological event than a technological breakthrough, but it’s accurate when dealing with these two distinct elements coming together. Combining IT and OT into a single platform is leading to some interesting applications that aren’t available when the two systems are independent. By combining them, they can work in conjunction and utilities can benefit. For our discussion, let’s stay with the convention of IT/OT convergence and look at the process a little deeper.
IT + OT = IT/OT
The IT side of the equation has had to overcome preconceived notions that it is only an enterprise application (i.e., billing, accounting, customer service, etc.), which is a dated concept. Smart grid digitalization has added a deeper dimension to the IT network with its real-time data collection. Today’s IT platforms are adding a degree of sophistication with enhanced automation and data analytics. Sharing information improves everything from customer information systems to outage management systems and demand response management systems.
OT platforms are typically associated with maintenance scheduling, keeping track of apparatuses, electronic format equipment manuals, etc., but like IT, the technology requires real-time data analysis. Modern OT platforms have advanced to device-to-device and device-to-computer applications. These platforms are powering sophisticated asset management systems, and control systems that require little to no human interaction.
By integrating IT and OT into IT/OT networks, utilities can optimize their data management, but it requires removing organizational silos. IT/OT applications are more efficient when there is access to data across the enterprise that is associated with the two platforms operating from segregated databases. The IT/OT convergence reduces redundancy, improves overlapping, and increases operational efficiency. To sum it up, think of that old geometry theorem, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”
IT/OT an Enabler
According to a Hitachi ABB Power Grids, “The IT/OT convergence is a key enabler of the digital transformation journey that starts with providing visibility into the condition of assets remotely and in real-time. The ability to integrate data streams from multiple sources to enhance outcomes or identify new ways to optimize or evolve the business.” Hitachi ABB went on to say, “The lines between IT and OT have blurred over time, and digitalization has accelerated this convergence as data is collected, analyzed, and shared across systems and organizations.”
Utilities understand they must invest in systems that support the connectivity between IT and OT at all levels of the enterprise. The Black & Veatch (B&V) “2020 Strategic Directions Electric Report” surveyed more than 600 power sector stakeholders about trends and challenges for the electric grid. The report indicated that the electrical industry is seeing enough activity that it may change how it views the benefits of integrated IT/OT systems. It went on to say, “A combined 68 percent of respondents agreed that the integrated planning of IT/OT systems will provide their utility with meaningful benefits.”
As IT/OT systems improve, digital technologies are not standing still either. Advancements in big-data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), cloud-based computing and storage, and others are proving to be worthy add-ons to the IT/OT convergence. These applications are making an extremely complex technology very user friendly.
Users are not required to be experts at data manipulations or specialists in the various IT/OT platforms. That is all taken care of by the hybrid-software. It has added new elements to asset management platforms, advanced distribution management systems, outage management systems, etc., that have never been available before.
Siemens Energy points out, “Advanced integration long remained limited to the IT world because of security concerns and the risk of potential penetration of critical OT infrastructure from the outside world. However, with the maturing of cybersecurity and increase of digital protection solutions most of the utility and industry companies today have started to integrate their IT and OT environments. “
The IT side of the IT/OT convergence has been dealing with cybersecurity for many years, but the OT side has been insulated from the outside world. Landis+Gyr reports, “A rapidly changing connectivity model presents new cybersecurity risk and threats for the utility industry. The Internet of Things (IoT) has changed the landscape of the energy industry. IP-enabled networks connect the OT side at the utility and the IT side. This means a convergence between SCADA, AMI, DA and consumer engagement systems.”
A Hitachi ABB Power Grids publication said, “Global cybercrime is expected to grow by 15% each year over the next five years, costing businesses US$10.5 trillion annually by 2025.” With more OT devices available this growing problem of cyberthreats is being taken seriously by utilities. The B&V “2020 Strategic Directions Electric Report” asked respondents if their companies had a formal cybersecurity program. 68.9% responded saying, “Yes, it covers both IT and OT.” The survey found that despite advances in cybersecurity implementation, many utilities were still working to close their OT gap, and digital technologies are making a difference.
In the past cybersecurity was more focused on recognition and reaction, but the big-data being generated by all the interconnected devices makes that approach difficult. By time the system recognizes the threat, it’s too late to do anything about it. That’s where AI’s deep learning, algorithms, and cognitive computing are making a difference. The same digital tools that are making the IT/OT applications user friendly are providing some killer apps in the cyberthreat world.
One of these was highlighted in a recent press release from Siemens Energy. They reported the development of the Managed Detection and Response (MDR), service in collaboration with ServiceNow. Siemens denoted, the MDR system is an AI-based platform designed specifically for an asset rich environment, and is powered by Eos.ii.
Siemens Energy said, “The MDR system provides a unified picture of anomalous behavior for defenders with actionable insights to stop attacks. The service goes beyond conventional monitoring by achieving a deeper understanding of how digital systems relate to the real world. With its unified OT and IT data stream, MDR’s Eos.ii technology platform uses AI and digital twin technology to compare billions of real-time data points against a correctly functioning asset. This provides context for Siemens Energy’s analysts to determine not only which events are abnormal, but which are consequential. The technical achievement of unified data streams and machine learning make an unprecedented platform for targeted, in-depth analysis.”
Another interesting real-time active cyber defense system is the Digital Ghost platform developed by GE that uses deep domain knowledge, AI, and the latest in controls theory. According to GE, “Digital Ghost is a new paradigm for securing industrial assets and critical infrastructure from both malicious cyber-attacks and naturally occurring faults. It provides a new line of defense at the physical domain layer in addition to current IT/OT layer solutions.“
GE went on to say, “The critical assets in today’s power plants, such as gas turbines, are all governed by physics, which we deeply understand and leverage to create digital twins of these machines. Digital Ghost uses these digital twins, knowledge of the associated control systems, and very advanced artificial intelligence algorithms to continuously monitor the asset’s behavior. Digital Ghost can determine if the machine is behaving abnormally due to a cyber-attack even when the operator’s user interface says everything is OK.”
Focusing on the Future
The future grid is going to be more interconnected. It will function very different from today’s grid. it will be more distributed, and cybersecurity will be an integral part of that grid. Many manufacturers are installing sensors and monitoring systems at the factory as an integral part of the device. In addition, manufacturers like GE, Hitachi ABB, Schneider Electric, Schweitzer Laboratories, Siemens Energy, and others are building in real-time active cybersecurity protection directly into the devices at the factory.
Initially IT and OT were independent of each other, and then a lot started happening in the world of distributed energy resources and integrated asset management systems not to mention the renewables replacing fossil fuel generation. Connectivity and data became indispensable, and IT/OT began to modernize the grid in ways no one predicted. The IoT or in the case of the grid, the industrial IoT or IIoT is bridging the gap between the two systems shaping the grid into a more flexible, stronger, and greener grid. It’s uncomfortable, but the advantages are worth it!