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The IT vs. OT debate

AT THE SALT RIVER PROJECT, OPERATIONS TENDS TO KEEP information technology under close control.

And that stance—whether representative of large numbers of utilities or specific to SRP—appears to reflect an IT evolution yet to reach fruition and the rigorous demands of the operational mandate for safety and reliability.

“The model SRP has used for many years is one in which there’s a corporate IT organization, and then there are IT subgroups of varying sizes in the generation, transmission and distribution chain,” said Gary Harper, SRP’s manager of system operations. “Operational IT groups really are integral to all aspects of operations. They really do understand 24/7.” That picture is evolving as corporate IT gradually steps into real-time support for operations. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some utilities have moved to a model in which a single IT organization serves both the business and operations—and some suggest that a few of those utilities have reverted back to SRP’s model. But at SRP, corporate IT and operations IT work in parallel but separate universes.

Drawing a line

“A big part of how we demarcate between the different IT functions at SRP—in other words, the corporate IT function versus operational IT—is around the networks they both use,” said Joe Nowaczyk, SRP’s manager for electronic systems. “Historically, utilities have installed a lot of communications networks to handle their operations. We’ve also leveraged that infrastructure for corporate purposes. We have a great fiber-optic network and a microwave network used for operations. But the physical layer of those networks is the responsibility of the operations side.

“So we separate the networks,” Nowacyzk added. “Corporate functions belong to corporate IT, while everything to do with operations runs on a separate network. They ride together on the physical layer maintained by operations.”

In-house IT support groups exist within the utility’s energy management system, its customer service group in charge of advanced metering infrastructure and for outage management, among others. Meanwhile, the corporate IT side, run by Kevin Nielsen, manager of information technology services, is evolving at an accelerated pace to meet demands driven by smart grid technology, particularly for security.

Traditional rivalries

“In the past, the relationship between IT and operations was somewhat distant,” Nielsen said. “IT wanted to be a five-day-per-week, eight-hour-per-day organization and, obviously, electricity doesn’t take a break. So IT has had to learn that it’s a 24/7 business. IT learned it had to be responsive.

“That disconnect between operations and IT had long caused contention,” Nielsen continued. “That’s starting to be resolved. The operations side is becoming more dependent on information technology to do almost everything. So operations has faced a dilemma. Either operations plunged into its own IT support role or worked with IT so we can support ongoing, incident-driven needs. That has meant an evolution largely on the IT side.”

One of the closest collaborations between IT and operations is in data storage and management. Operations relies on corporate IT to identify and purchase hardware such as servers that will support all utility functions. Software for specific operations tends to be evaluated and implemented by the various operational IT sub-groups, which also design specific applications, according to Harper.

It’s not yet clear whether pursuing a smarter grid will bring the two areas of corporate IT and operations closer together.

“We embarked on a program with EPRI on a road map for what we call ‘smart grid,’ the definition of which evolves over time,” Harper said. “That program has a myriad of higher technology applications. One is the meter on the residence, implemented by our customer service group, which has its own small, operational IT organization. So that group is in the lead on developing a data management system to manage all that data.”

Of course, “all that data” is of little use unless it can be analyzed and presented to decision-makers in a timely manner. Turning data into actionable intelligence is “still one of the tricks in the business,” according to Harper.

“Most of our IT analysts [in operations] are interacting with someone at an operating desk or someone in charge of maintenance or someone in a control room at a power plant to enable the latter to make timely decisions,” Harper said.

Security a common issue

Security needs are driving both sides to collaborate more, but security demands limit resources and options in some cases, Nielsen said.

“There’s a balancing act,” he said. “The security requirement is causing more rigidity in the IT world. That, in turn, limits flexibility. Some of the neat things we see on the horizon that might be possible could be inhibited because of security concerns—that’s the tough thing.”

“The more money and time we spend on security, the less we spend on new functionality,” Nielsen concluded.

“From my perspective, corporate IT and operational IT are integrating more and more on a day-to-day basis,” Harper added. “We’re all grappling with security. We do a very good job of using firewalls to isolate the operational network from the corporate IT network. But over time, economies of scale and the value of bringing those two sets of data together—common uses—is making it harder and harder to keep the two isolated. I don’t know where that’s going in the future.”

Still, there are aspects of operating a high-voltage generation-transmission-distribution system that may place limits on the IT-operations collaboration, Harper said.

“I’m real comfortable with a corporate IT person working on my desktop applications,” he said. “I’m not as comfortable sending that person into a high-voltage environment with which they’re not familiar.”

“Ten years ago, we didn’t talk about these issues,” Harper concluded. “Today, Kevin and I discuss this all the time because of where the technology is going. How do we leverage all the technical skill and experience at our disposal?”

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