How to prepare for IT-OT convergence (and what to expect)


By: SGN Staff

By Jesse Berst


I've been conducting interviews and research in preparation for a Lessons from the Real World webinar on IT-OT convergence Wednesday, August 21. I collected some best practices along the way, and I've shared them below. For more on the topic - and for the chance to ask questions of three top experts - click the link to register.


All over the world, utilities are facing up to the task of integrating information technology (IT) operations with those of operational technology (OT).


It's no surprise that the trend has become so strong. IT is now a major component of most OT gear. What's more, computer networking and telecommunications - once a "convenience" handled by IT - has now become a necessity for managing the operational side of a modern utility.


Where we came from

Historically, IT and OT were maintained and managed separately. IT was traditionally associated with back-office business systems such as accounting, billing and customer records. OT was traditionally associated with field devices and the systems to monitor and control them such as SCADA and distribution management systems (DMS).


That specialization made lots of sense back then, but it no longer makes the grade. Yet even though change is clearly demanded, many organizations have calcified. Their internal divisions have become so rigid that change is very hard.

The importance of an architecture

Most utilities take a gradual, step-by-step approach to convergence. Even so, they should start with a comprehensive architecture for the entire system. "You need to establish the practices and standards up front," explains industry veteran John Dirkman,  Senior Product Manager, Smart Grid Global at Schneider Electric. "Here's the disaster recovery, here's the backup site, here's the security. Laying it out up front leads to the best consensus and the best results."


"First think about the overall architecture - how you will build it and how you will secure it," confirms Schneider Electric's Jeff Meyers, the former President of Telvent Miner & Miner. "Then you can launch a small project. Even if you can't do everything at once, you still need to think through the system as a whole before you start small projects that won't fit together."


The importance of virtualization

With virtualization, several operating systems can be run in parallel on a single central processing unit (CPU). Virtualization dramatically improves the efficiency and availability of resources.


"By moving to a virtualized environment, we dramatically increased speed of operations," says Fletcher. "By being totally in an IP environment, by unifying the platform, we have had very few integration issues with technology."


The challenges of convergence

Making the business case can be a major obstacle to getting convergence underway. "First they have to understand the value of this change, to be able to put some numbers to it," says Fletcher. "Then they have to have confidence that the solution will work."


"It is hard to quantify the value of a distribution management system," he continues. "It can contribute to a lot of things - safety, reliability, staffing, training, economics."


"There is one difficulty we see everywhere," says Meyers. "Nobody is starting with a clean slate. There is a lot of legacy technology to stitch together... and that's a tall order." He emphasizes the need to re-architect the system at the outset.


Finally, some utilities get stalled by the need to clean up their data. When you are merging your underlying data with a geographical information system (GIS), you need a higher level of accuracy. "Some organizations let their data get stale," warns Fletcher, "but you don't save any money in the long run by cutting that corner."


The benefits of convergence

"Meeting regulatory requirements is a big benefit," says Jeff Meyers. "When, for instance, you have an outage management system, it can help you make better decisions about restoration, improving CAIDI and SAIDI."


Flexibility is another big bonus. "We are not sure how business models will be changing," explains Fletcher. "We've been trying to do demand response in California for years with only partial success. Will we expand DR? Or will we need to bring in storage? Either way, we need a system that can manage both DR and distributed storage. Whichever way it comes down, the Telvent platform can handle it."


Lessons learned

If Fletcher could do anything over again, he would insist on "an order of magnitude improvement in project management." He has now had all his project managers certified. They learn to begin projects with a charter that is discussed with and approved by all stakeholders. "It pays off to develop those charters first before you rush head long into the project," he warns. "IT-OT convergence is merciless when it comes to poor planning."


To hear more from Fred Fletcher, Jeff Meyers and John Dirkman, click to register for a Smart Grid News webinar on IT-OT convergence Wednesday, August 21. Free to SGN readers while space remains. Registrants will also receive a link to a recording and frequently asked questions if they are unable to attend live.


Jesse Berst is the founder and Chief Analyst of SGN and Chairman of the Smart Cities Council, an industry coalition.