Bridging the gap between IT and OT systems

Historically, Information Technology (IT) and Operations Technology (OT) networks have operated independent of one another. Electric utilities have relied on IT to automate business functions such as billing, customer service, and accounting while OT has primarily been focused on controlling power grid operations such as electricity distribution, critical energy infrastructure management and transportation systems management.

Today, however, digital transformation is blurring the line between IT and OT. The two worlds are converging, particularly in Industrial IoT. Processes are overlapping within the electric, gas, and water utility industries, as IT and OT teams are using the same infrastructure components and applications. Smart metering is a perfect example of this. The meters themselves are OT and are a part of the electricity distribution network, yet the meter data management and back office functions are classic IT applications.

In today’s world of connectivity and real-time data, bridging the gap between IT and OT systems creates new opportunities to improve operational efficiency, meet customer demands, and keep pace with digital transformation. With enterprise applications (IT) and operations running the grid (OT) working together, utilities can benefit from disaster recovery and business continuity efforts. The integration of these systems enables an organization to optimize data consistency and management, which increases productivity and other efficiencies including network planning and engineering, service assurance, and service fulfillment.

Benefits of IT/OT Convergence

To improve network planning and engineering, accurate as-is documentation is needed. Change management and rollout management will only work efficiently from a process perspective if all needed documentation is available to and accessible by the other tools within the process. Data created within the planning phase (e.g. new cards, new devices) in the network (OT) can then be delivered to teams responsible for stock management or supplier management and the purchasing of required equipment (IT). This sharing of information makes operational efficiency and cost reduction possible.

By integrating data from the transport network with outage management applications, utility companies can enhance service availability, reduce downtime, and ultimately improve service assurance processes. For example, mapping alarm data from network monitoring systems to ports or cards in a resource management application enables impact analysis that immediately shows affected services throughout a heterogeneous multi-vendor / multi-technology network environment. Further integrating this information with customer data of a CRM system will provide a list of affected customers, per service. This is a prime example of how utility companies can use OT and IT applications together. They can discover outages more quickly, react faster and share data with trouble ticketing applications to automate service desk processes and manage them more effectively.

The operation of a power grid relies on communication infrastructure and imposes high availability and resilience requirements. The planning and routing of redundant connections through this communication network demands not only full visibility of protected routings on the transport network level, but also full transparency of redundancies and dependencies on the underlying cable and outside plant infrastructure. If the data is stored in several stand-alone data sources, manual checks are necessary. These are time consuming and prone to error. The integration of this data within one data model that inherently performs dependency checks enables automation of these audits. Such an approach significantly reduces cost and increases service quality and availability.

This integration of systems is becoming more important with the emergence of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which uses smart sensors and connected devices to enhance and automate processes. Since IIoT relies on gathering, sending and receiving information via the communications infrastructure, convergence and the underlying communications infrastructure has become a major focal point in digital transformation.

The Biggest Hurdle to Overcome

Utilities are an asset-intensive industry. Successful convergence depends on achieving an end-to-end view of all resource and service assets of the communication network, across all technologies and vendors, throughout each layer. Today’s utility networks are typically based on a very heterogeneous mix of technologies (e.g. WDM, SONET / SDH, MPLS, IP, etc.). Adopting comprehensive resource management is the key to achieving a complete view of assets and improving service assurance, service fulfillment, engineering and planning.

Creating a single resource repository is the best way to achieve a comprehensive end-to-end view. To create such a resource repository, typically EMS / NMS data of the different network technologies are used to load vendor-agnostic resource information and reconcile the data regularly to keep it accurate. The same applies to the underlying passive cable and outside plant infrastructure. In this domain, however, an integrated planning, change and documentation update process ensures data accuracy and takes on the reconciliation role mentioned above.

Achieving IT/OT Alignment

The first step in successfully converging IT and OT systems is to eliminate organizational silos. Holistic, unified management of OT and IT resources is a must. One of the obstacles to convergence that utilities most often cite is overcoming these organizational silos. A single data repository that integrates with other systems to make data actionable by users across the organization, regardless of where they reside in the organization, is a best practice for resolving this issue.

Second, implementing a common data source will make processes more efficient and improve control of active and passive network infrastructure. An integrated data model implemented in a central data hub, that simplifies integration and sharing of data, is a critical part of a utility’s systems architecture. This will enable utilities to use data between operational and IT systems seamlessly and, ultimately, improve business processes. A single system of record will also make it easier for utility companies to share information, both inside and outside the enterprise. This reduces operational cost and facilitates impact analysis in case of outages and during maintenance window management, and the diverse routing of connections. Operational efficiency can only be reached if resource data is provided across all active and passive network and infrastructure layers.

Third, data integration is crucial for IT and OT tools to communicate with each other and with other key systems. IT/OT crosses traditional boundaries including planning/engineering, operations, field work, enterprise applications, and the customer. A central resource repository needs to expose data via open API capabilities to facilitate a successful standards-based integration. Whether between operations, business and IT, the control center or the field force, IT/OT integration is about making information available where it has the greatest impact and benefit, no matter what group in the organization is responsible for the creation and maintenance of the data.

 Unified Resource Management

Overall, IT and OT convergence is the key to continued success in the utilities market. Convergence is only possible if enterprise applications (IT) and operations running the grid (OT) are using common data sources to share information, integrate applications and automate processes. Implementing a unified network and service resource management solution will provide utilities with full visibility across all type of physical, logical and virtual IT, data center and telecommunication networks and service resources. With this transparency, utilities will experience reduced operational costs and improved efficiency due to IT automation and process integration, faster troubleshooting, accelerated service delivery as well as streamlined change management and transformation processes, and the elimination of data silos.

Lead Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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Ulrich Schälling is Head of Business Line Networks at FNT Software. Ulrich is responsible for the strategy and the business of FNT's innovative software products in the Telecommunications market. Before joining FNT, he worked in various roles at Alcatel-Lucent in the OSS and system integration business. He holds a master's degree in electrical engineering and has over 25 years of experience in the Telecommunications market.

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