IP/MPLS – Communications For The Forward Looking Utility

IP/MPLS offers advantages for critical utility applications including teleprotection and SCADA.
Published: Wed 13 May 2015

In the changing energy environment, communications is central to utility operations and many utilities globally are evolving their critical operational communications supporting SCADA and teleprotection to a converged IP/MPLS (Internet Protocol/Multiservice Package Label Switching) network.

“IP/MPLS isn’t new but its application in the energy sector is more recent,” says Peter Johnson, Utility Markets Vice President at Alcatel-Lucent, who with colleagues will be presenting an Engerati webinar on the utility transition experience to IP/MPLS. [Engerati-Transitioning Experience - SCADA and Teleprotection to IP/MPLS]

Why IP/MPLS?

Johnson explains that communications technology is changing as the major buyers, i.e. the carriers, are moving away from the older analogue and SDH infrastructures to IP networks, which is resulting in the older technologies disappearing from the market. This is forcing utilities to rethink their communication requirements. In doing so, there are a number of concerns with critical applications such as teleprotection and SCADA over IP: the need to ensure that the network route is always identical, and the need to ensure the signal time for network traversal is always identical. In addition, the network must be able to support teleprotection and SCADA equipments in the field that can be up to 40+ years old, with old protocols, interfaces and sensitivities to change.

“We need a modern communications network that can adapt to any environment, from those applications that are very sensitive in terms of latency and paths with their dated interfaces and protocols, to the latest applications that are more relaxed and designed for the world of IP, plus whatever the future may bring. This is what IP/MPLS offers, bringing the benefits and flexibility of IP and superimposing the guaranteed levels of performance of MPLS.”

In addition to committed information path and information rates, other features of IP/MPLS include ensuring that a service is always treated as a service, and having a hierarchical Quality of Service so that the lower priority traffic is dropped ahead of the critical traffic. It then provides the flexibility for today’s evolving utility infrastructure as well as being ready for future energy applications.

“We believe that if we can solve the communications requirements for teleprotection and SCADA, as the technically most demanding of the utility applications, then we have solved utilities’ other requirements,” says Johnson.

Utility applications for IP/MPLS

With an IP/MPLS network, utilities are able to effectively segregate traffic into separate virtual pipes, each with its own committed priority and bandwidth, while sharing the same communications channel. This means that teleprotection can be kept separate from SCADA, and also allows enterprise traffic and commercial services to be safely added.

Johnson comments that a small number of progressive utilities have started to put commercial traffic on the IP network, particularly those with a telco business, but these are the exception so far.

“Typically we see utilities start with the ‘other’ OT applications such as voice and CCTV at substations, and then add SCADA and then teleprotection. Then they look at adding the enterprise traffic.”

Utilities move to IP/MPLS

Johnson says that utilities in all regions of the world are moving to IP/MPLS.

Among these are Canada’s largest independent transmission operator, Calgary-based AltaLink, and Luxembourg’s national electricity and gas distributor, Creos. AltaLink was one of the first to transition to IP/MPLS, starting in 2010, in an upgrade of its entire transmission telecommunications infrastructure. Creos’ goal was to enhance performance and improve reliability with its smart meter and smart grid deployment.

Challenges of IP/MPLS transition

Johnson says the two main challenges experienced by utilities in considering a transition to IP/MPLS are a perceived absence of skills and concern about the safety of their network.

“Utilities may have to bring in new skills or train up existing staff but vendors such as Alcatel-Lucent will help as much as is needed, whether it is designing the architecture or integrating, implementing or operating the network, as well as in providing training” Johnson comments.

Regarding the safety concern, Johnson says this can be overcome by introducing peers who have previously made the transition to IP/MPLS. “They are leaders just like themselves,” he says, adding that IP/MPLS is now out of the “early adopter” phase and so this barrier is breaking down.

Indeed there is also a start of interest in software defined networks (SDNs) in utilities. “Utilities are clearly starting to take a forward looking approach to communications,” Johnson says. He adds: “Looking ahead, we don’t see IP technology changing radically in the foreseeable future, but the platforms off which it is delivered could change and MPLS could easily evolve to SDN.”

Disclaimer: Alcatel-Lucent joins Nokia following successful exchange of shares. Find out more