In the past, the energy industry recognised information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) as two separate entities. However, by joining the two, utilities can build more collaborative teams and interoperable systems.
IT was traditionally associated with back-office administration systems such as accounting, billing and customer records and OT was associated with field technology and the systems that monitor and control them (such as SCADA and distribution management systems.) This is now no longer the case.
IT has become a large component of most OT gear. Computer networking and telecommunications, once handled by the IT department, is now essential for the managing the operational side of a modern utility.
IT-OT as used in the so called ‘digital utility’ can deliver the following benefits:
High degrees of grid automation, sensing and visibility
Greater control of distributed generation
Better support of regulatory compliance
Improves the electric system and organisational performance
Better strategic decisions are made, bringing about improved customer satisfaction
Enables a smarter grid with greater system optimisation
Creates a more effective (and enabled) workforce as knowledge is shared
Stakeholders are happier as they are more informed
OT-IT the new opportunities
Predictive analytics or "big data" is bringing IT and OT together in new ways-IT has analysis capabilities and tools and in-memory computing platforms which are useful at scales required by businesses, and OT has data and domain knowledge, but no proper experience with the latest analysis tools used by IT.
Compliance activities are bringing IT and OT together with regards to safety, access controls, privacy and cybersecurity. High-priority, prescriptive compliance frameworks like NERC / CIP (critical infrastructure protection) require IT staff and grid operations staff to work together so that they can share documentation, collaborate on the risks and create solutions to avoid it. Cybersecurity is now everybody’s responsibility and the collaboration between IT and OT will only serve to improve solutions to avoid it.
Challenges and overcoming them
Despite the obvious benefits of OT/IT convergence, many utilities will battle against the change. Internal divisions become so rigid that change for them is a major challenge.
Utilities that attempt to manage IT and OT departments separately come against some serious problems as they can share very different priorities.
In order to erase the boundary between OT and IT departments, it is essential to pull representatives of each department together and agree on the common goals to provide reliable and affordable power. There needs to be agreement on the types of equipment that will be used and where it will be used on the network.
They also need to decide on what is mission critical and agree on strategies to provide round the clock support.
There are also reports that by locating and managing IT and OT staff in the same space, convergence becomes easier.
Some utilities have created a networks operation center which is physically located near the operational control center which operates the grid. This makes it easier to integrate both teams when it comes to making key decisions, brainstorming, and building trust.