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September 23, 2021
As computing continues to move to "the edge," utilities are increasingly dealing with the accelerating rollout of industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices throughout the grid. Smart meters, load breakers, re-closers, meter concentrators and secondary substations are just a few examples of how IIoT can impact utilities, bringing a deluge of new data sources from operational technology (OT) into the world of utility information technology (IT).
This convergence of IT and OT offers many advantage for utilities. Managing OT devices with IT simplifies management and security and eliminates silos of information that can shroud insights from discovery. However this convergence also presents a broad range of new challenges for utilities. IIoT devices are subject to cybersecurity attacks and extracting actionable insights – in real-time – from the firehose of data coming from myriad devices can be difficult, highlighting the need for data scientists and analytics tools. Additionally, utilities struggle to connect legacy devices into their edge network while underserved sites may be left in the proverbial dark when it comes to information gathering, automation, and instrumentation.
There are many trends that come together to drive IIoT adoption:
The increasing growth of edge computing
Adoption of container based IIoT applications which can be rapidly deployed and easily scaled, such as Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) hosting to aid transition to new technologies
New low-power, battery-powered devices that extend transmission range from meters to miles such as low power wide area networks (LP-WAN) and LoRaWAN devices which can run for years on a single battery
New and legacy edge devices and the need for real-time information put considerable pressure on the data network – particularly on gateway devices. If not properly managed, IIoT network sprawl could lead to a tangle of application-specific devices and networks, each with their own data silo, management consoles, and support requirements. For this reason, utilities should focus on deploying IIoT specific gateways that are cloud aware, that provide:
Secure communications to help thwart cyberattacks and ransomware, that provide protection for wired and wireless networks and offer anomaly detection that can help automate event management and threat abatement
Support for the alphabet soup of protocols and interfaces for both legacy and modern IIoT devices. At minimum this should include media such as fiber, LTE, serial, digital, and analog inputs, Wi-Fi, Modbus, and LoRaWAN as a start
Edge computing support with analytics that bring OT to IT, enabling a single console to manage IT and OT devices, better integration of IIoT data for analytics and data mining, and bringing all devices – IT and OT – under a single set of security policies.
Automation tools including zero-touch provisioning (ZTP) to support the ever-growing number of new devices added to the utility network at the edge in order to save technician time and reduce opex
SCADA protocol conversion to ease transition from legacy devices and networks and provide unified visibility for legacy and new devices in the field
Ruggedized form factors for remote or harsh environments
Scalability to support growth in the number of new IIoT devices being deployed and growth of the installed customer base.
For utilities, the road to IIoT can be littered with a heap of network appliances. Of course all these network functions need to be performed, but no longer do utilities need to deal with myriad single-function devices to make IIoT a reality.
Organizations like RAD replace all of these point products, taking a "Swiss army knife" approach by offering some of these capabilities in hardware and others – as software hosted on a ruggedized gateway. This eliminates the need for separate boxes for PLC, LoRa Gateway, Protocol Convertor or any other utility network function. RAD's approach helps utilities make informed decisions based on what is happening in real time, incorporating data from remote sites with sensors that are typically unattended, legacy protocols and technologies such as Modbus and SCADA, and the devices that help transform utilities from simple power providers to true service organizations.
Want to learn more? Click here to see a video on how to choose the right IIoT gateway for your organization.
— Michael Krieger, Light Reading Contributor, for RAD
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