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Simplifying OT/IT Integration in Utilities

image credit: Greenbird Integration Technology (Adobe stock)

More and more utilities are integrating both operational technology (OT) and IT systems in pursuit of greater data connectivity. But how to do so without compromising security?

OT is traditionally isolated from the rest of a utility’s IT infrastructure for security reasons due to its vital role in controlling business-critical processes and assets.

However, modern utilities are starting to realize that putting OT in a sandbox is not ideal for technological innovation. The emerging trends benefiting companies today like the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and digital twins do not mesh well with isolated systems.

This has led to a rise in the need for OT/IT integration in utilities, with the aforementioned technologies playing key roles in driving the demand for connected systems. While few have actually taken the step to date, OT/IT integration is a boon to utility efficiency since internal processes are enhanced by greater data connectivity integration.

That said, OT/IT integration creates a new set of security risks for utilities to manage. The potential impact of a breach in utility control systems should be taken very seriously. An attack on utility OT systems can not only affect the business, but it can also turn into a national emergency if citizens lose access to critical utilities.

The Risks of Pursuing Digital Transformation in Isolated OT Systems

Most utilities recognize the benefits of linking OT and IT systems, but few are actually taking the initiative to do so. An extensive survey conducted by Accenture discovered that 80% of utilities are barely in the initial stages of OT/IT integration, with only 5% saying they have achieved complete OT/IT integration.

Why is this happening?

The biggest obstacle to OT/IT integration is security concerns. As mentioned earlier, OT systems house mission-critical processes that control the core grid functions of utilities. Typical OT system responsibilities include Supervisory control (SCADA), monitoring front-end field-based devices and sensors, and Distribution Management Systems (DMS) that help ensure the lights stay on as well as keep the public and work crew safe.

Since OT systems focus so much on the performance of core processes, they may ignore areas like security and data transparency, which makes for primitive systems compared to other business IT systems. In fact, since most OT systems derive their security from the parameter they are installed in they often rely on outdated security within the systems that are running on.

There are also organizational barriers in utilities that further hinder the adoption of OT/IT integration. An IoT-focused survey held in 2017 discovered that 57% of business leaders say the biggest challenge to OT/IT integration was “overcoming cultural barriers and organizational silos.”

Furthermore, many executives express the concern they’ll not see a positive return on investment after implementing OT/IT platforms. This is understandable considering both systems have been separated for the better part of a century without any major issues.

The question is, why should utilities continue pursuing OT/IT integration, knowing these risks?

Why OT/IT Integration is Still Necessary Despite the Challenges

Rapidly emerging challenges in global economies are forcing utilities to think out of the box in addressing these issues, particularly in modernizing tech processes. One such approach is to integrate OT/IT systems and create a smart environment that allows the two to communicate in a secure manner so that the data that would be needed to reap the benefits of the integration can flow.

The growing usage of IoT devices in utilities has also spurred a greater need for data connectivity to fully realize its benefits. With OT/IT integration, features like remote asset diagnostics, continuous automation, and production optimization are made possible—all of which boost efficiency and productivity immensely in utilities.

For instance, rather than importing and exporting data manually as it is done today, OT/IT integration allows the automatic synchronization of vital data (e.g. asset data, topology info, and metering event data). This frees up valuable resources that can be funneled towards higher-level work instead.

The advantages of OT/IT integration extend beyond operational efficiency, as it also brings benefits like:

  • Reducing operating costs due to more efficient processes
  • Customer retention through new service innovation
  • Preventing costly asset failure through predictive maintenance
  • Creation of new business models
  • Enabling the use of digital twins based on complete OT/IT datasets to manage, monitor, and maintain assets in real-time

How digital twins work in a Smart Facilities Example (Image Source)

It’s not speculative to suggest that OT/IT integration will lead to new revenue streams for utilities, due to two factors: 1) the creation of new business models and 2) happier customers who have their demands met.

More importantly, it will unlock the full potential of data to transform utilities into smart, highly-connected organizations that will adapt well to the impending 4th Industrial Revolution.

How to Solve the Security Concern in OT/IT Integration

Utilities find themselves stuck in a Catch-22 situation when dealing with OT/IT integration. OT devices are inevitably exposed to vulnerabilities when they’re connected to IT systems that interact with the outside world—essentially every non-OT component. Overcoming this problem requires a total rehaul in how OT systems are managed in utilities.

The OT/IT integration conundrum can be solved by leveraging data diodes (or "unidirectional security gateway") connected to a digital integration platform designed for utilities. By implementing the platform protocols to work with and through data diodes, data can be exchanged seamlessly between OT and IT systems in a secure manner.

This is achieved through the secure unidirectional characteristics of a data diode that provides a one-way communication path that ensures that information only can travel in one direction.

In this way utilities are able to achieve seamless OT/IT integration and enjoy real-time connectivity whilst managing the typical risks associated with security threats. With real-time communication between OT and IT systems now finally possible, utilities are empowered with the ability to maintain a highly connected, scalable, and secure IT infrastructure.

Learn more about the possibilities at DISTRIBUTECH 2020.

Frederik ten Sythoff's picture

Thank Frederik for the Post!

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Discussions

Thorsten Heller's picture
Thorsten Heller on Jan 25, 2020 6:39 pm GMT

the Digital Grid requires an OT/IT integration handling data and message exchange in real-time. Just batch or file based OT/IT integration will be a short coming.

Nice article.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 27, 2020 3:29 pm GMT

Are batch/file based integrations what's typically being used as a shortcut? What are the gaps this strategy leaves?

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