IT/OT convergence: Big impact for smarter cities

30 September 2013 | Jeff Meyers, Smart Grid Strategy and Development



Operations Technology (OT) is a critical component of the services that local governments deliver, especially in utilities. Devices that monitor and control electricity, water and wastewater are commonplace within city utility operations groups. From remote gate valves (water/wastewater) to reclosers and sectionalizers (electricity), the real-time, mission-critical tools of infrastructure management have grown in intelligence and scope. Devices and equipment that exchange data and function to monitor and control systems are getting smarter and more interconnected all the time, by embedding more Information Technology (IT) capabilities.

Sometimes referred to as IT/OT convergence, this trend has significant implications for the departments that own and operate OT, as well as for cross-departmental IT support staff. The IT/OT converged world means bringing together applications and devices in new ways, and tying together systems that have previously operated in isolation. Along with the vast growth in numbers of devices and the increased functionality in both the IT and OT spheres, bringing systems together yields integration on an entirely new scale. Meeting the needs of the IT/OT-integrated city will require advances in communications, adherence to expanded standards, and a focus on architecture and security.

Communications and Protocols

The network of the IT/OT-integrated world will likely not be a single network, but rather a combination of private and public infrastructure. It will be based on standard, open technologies such as IP (internet protocol) but will account for proprietary, legacy protocols common in the OT space.

Standards

Growth in both IT and OT is enabled by interoperability standards developed through collaboration between industry and government. Perhaps one of the most important by-products of the smart grid era (the industry-wide initiative to make the electrical system smarter and more automated) is the work done by government and industry groups on interoperability standards to support grid modernization. IT/OT projects relying on the current body of standards can move forward today with a high degree of confidence that things will work together.

Architecture

The design of an integrated IT/OT system architecture must consider the city’s current and future ecosystem and be flexible and adaptive to meet future needs, while providing the scale and security required for mission-critical operations. Fortunately, industry-proven architectural patterns exist to help utilities work through the design process. Microsoft provides the Connected Government Framework Reference Architecture as a pattern for general governmental IT and OT services. For utilities, Microsoft’s Smart Energy Reference Architecture (SERA) comes with a well-documented reference model and helpful discussions on integration design.

Cyber-security

While interoperability standards have flourished, security standards and regulation have been somewhat challenging. Yet cyber security continues to be an important theme, made even more critical by the convergence of IT/OT. Cities and utilities are moving forward with effective strategies for securing infrastructure.

One such city is Burbank, CA. Burbank Water and Power spearheaded an effort to integrate communications and data for real-time monitoring and management of both electric and water utilities, while taking advantage of some early forward thinking about combining OT and IT operations. BWP’s integrated IT/OT systems manage a host of utility functions within the umbrella of the city’s infrastructure.

The trend towards IT/OT convergence holds promise for making all infrastructure management more efficient and safer, as smarter technologies in the field become more integrated. With careful planning and disciplined execution, IT/OT convergence will make cities smarter.  

Jeff Meyers
Smart Grid Strategy and Development

Microsoft on Government Blog

About the Author

Jeff Meyers | Smart Grid Strategy and Development

Jeff works with the development teams and customers of Schneider Electric to help chart the course for implementation of emerging smart technologies. Read more