Taming the Big 4 – Four ICT challenges facing power distributors (Part3)
Challenge #3: Migration to packet. An obstacle to some. An opportunity for others
In the third of our ‘Taming the Big Four’ blog series, looking at the key challenges facing power distributors, Marco Berger, ECI’s Head of Critical Infrastructure Solutions, explores how to upgrade legacy infrastructure smoothly and, just as importantly, see it as an opportunity, not just an obstacle.
The juggernaut that is the Winter Package is approaching. Put simply, the demands laid out in this EU directive are unavoidable, and the only way to satisfy them is to upgrade your infrastructure and OT systems. Part of which means moving to Packet. On paper, this sounds relatively straightforward. In reality, it’s anything but. However, with careful planning and a comprehensive approach, it can be a surprisingly smooth process – and actually take your business in new and profitable directions.
As you’ll know, there’s a whole bunch of old systems in your network that run on legacy protocols. And some of it is absolutely mission-critical. You know, teleprotection systems to secure an uninterrupted supply of electricity, and control interfaces such as SCADA to monitor and control your assets.
The big migration challenge facing the utility companies is two-fold. First: how best to transition your legacy systems to Packet. Second: how to ensure mission-critical systems like teleprotection and SCADA stay critical throughout. A loss of service will not only damage your reputation and lose money, but repeated outages could mean regulatory penalties and, of course, customer dissatisfaction!
So as a power distributor, how do you go about upgrading your legacy equipment? Is there a proven method to follow? What kind of advice will you need, and are there other business opportunities you can capitalise on to generate new revenue streams or improve the ROI of migrating to Packet? Spoiler alert – there are.
What does success look like?
Before we get into the process of migration, it’s worth painting a picture of what a successful migration looks like. For me, it’s where your systems continue to be as highly available and robust as they are today, but better. They continue to provide completely deterministic performance, but enjoy the benefits of modern networking technologies. Such as improved network visibility, process automation and simplified day to day operations – in fact all those attributes associated with state of the art management and control systems. .Moreover, the migration should be as painless as possible – why spend time and resources in adapting current services to new protocols if they can simply and easily be migrated natively? Technology should work for you – not the other way around.
A blueprint for migration
Without going into too much detail here about project management, we have a migration process that’s worked very well for our customers. I’ve also included links to three ECI solutions, which I think are extremely relevant. Here are the basic steps:
- Mapping – first collate and then analyse:
a. The network – this gives you a complete picture of your inventory of active and passive assets. This is crucial as the network operations team is sometimes completely unaware of the types of devices, equipment, interfaces, power supply and environmental conditions on their network and substations.
b. The processes – what is and isn’t mission-critical? This involves prioritising, based on their potential impact on your operations.
c. The technologies – which devices run on which technologies? For example, which type of SCADA equipment and technology? Do you need distance or differential teleprotection? What about communications technology? TDM/SDH/SONET?
- Choosing a Packet technology to migrate to – there are two options: MPLS-TP or IP/MPLS. Each has benefits and deficits, making the choice sometimes complex. ECI’s elastic MPLS solution can meet your needs whatever your choice, by offering the best of both worlds. And if you want to converge and consolidate it all together on the same platform, we can do that too. This flexibility is quite unique to ECI. See ECI’s ELASTIC MPLS Application note for more information.
- Securing the technology – as I’ve talked about in a previous article on security, introducing IP-based devices and technology into your operational network and systems, will introduce more vulnerabilities. So we have a unique embedded (not separate) cyber security solution that is best-of-breed, and which can be applied to minimise potential cyber security breaches. This is also something not many vendors offer. See ECI LightSEC for more detail.
- Managing the network – what assets do you need to supervise, monitor, control, configure and report on the network? The truth is that on top of things like SCADA, and teleprotection, there’s a growing industry trend towards adopting other tech – eg. smart grid systems, advanced metering, IOT devices. All the ensuing complexity of connecting these to your communications layer is making networks ever more complex. To manage this increasingly interconnected picture requires a very sophisticated, intelligent, holistic management system. One capable of integrating devices from different vendors, providing enhanced real-time visibility, analysing resources, and minimising problems before they appear. And all the while, protecting against cyber threats. See LightSOFT for more detail.
- Phased implementation – what will be migrated and when? You need it to be controlled and risk-free, so you can support any existing scenario while evolving to keep pace with changes in traffic.
Find advice you can trustRemember, you’re a mission-critical utility company at the end of the day. Your network has very particular requirements unlike those of communications service providers. So it’s really important that you find a vendor who will tailor or customize a solution and approach around your network transformation. Off-the-shelf simply won’t work in your industry. So find a trusted advisor to do that inventory or scan and help you decide which parts of the network you’ll evolve over what timeframe. That way, you’ll move at a rate you’re happy with, not be forced to adopt features because of a product you’ve selected.
Future-proofing: think long-term
Whatever the solution, it has to be future-proof. That means choosing technology that has a very long lifespan, which can flex and adapt to whatever business model a utility company needs to adopt in the short or long-term. And the way the industry and the wider commercial world are moving, future-proofing requires a two-pronged approach.
First, there’s future-proofing the relationship between you (the utility company) and your customers. Because before long, you might be sending and receiving electricity at the same rate, so you will need a reliable real-time billing system connected to consumption or production of electricity by customers. Currently, this is not available, but thanks to the smart grid and advanced metering, this is not far off. This will require improving connectivity to data centres, CRM systems, ERP and billing processes.
Second, there’s future-proofing your network to make the most of new business opportunities. In many countries, utility companies can use their communications infrastructure, which often extends to some pretty remote places, to provide communications services to other companies. For example, in the Netherlands, our customer sells capacity to KPM Communications to communicate between different sites. In France, our customer provides connectivity to Orange base stations. And in the US, it has been reported that AT&T is in advanced discussions to deliver multi-gigabit broadband services to rural environments using existing power infrastructure. In fact many ECI utility customers have become UTelcos, leveraging their modern network infrastructure for additional revenue streams - a win-win situation for everyone concerned. Without compromising on your mission critical OT applications and services, you can enjoy additional flexibility in IT and business services.
And a look further into the future, reveals that utility companies are in a strong position. You’re trusted. You have access to people’s homes. And due to EU directives like the Winter Package, and the eventual need to install smart meters in everybody’s homes, you’ll have a platform to start providing ‘smart home’ services – eg, heating, lighting, CCTV.
An obstacle and an opportunity
When helping power distributors to transition to Packet, we’ve also been advising them on how they can generate additional revenue streams. So while migration may seem an obstacle - to some degree, it’s also a real opportunity.
Therefore it’s worth talking to a network solutions vendor that really understands the pains and challenges of the utility and power distribution sector. Ideally, a company with at least 50 years’ experience in mission-critical environments. A company that has a strong track record as a ‘trusted advisor’ and one that can advise and support you on every aspect of transitioning to Packet.
Does anyone spring to mind?