How utility network managers can gain critical visibility to meet user demands

How utility network managers can gain critical visibility to meet user demands
Published: 16 December 2019 - 11:43 a.m.
By: Baset Asaba

In the UAE, with a predominantly urban population where 85% of residents live in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah, rush-hour traffic often makes workers late for meetings due to unforeseen accidents or circumstances delay our journey. Many commuters turn to Waze, the GPS navigation software app, to identify the fastest route in real-time. If traffic conditions change, Waze automatically proposes a new route so that we can reach our destination in the fastest way possible.

Just as commuters need to navigate through the best routes available, utilities companies also rely on systems that enable them to transport traffic throughout their IP multi-protocol label switching (IP/MPLS) networks. In the world of “five nines” reliability mandated for electric utilities network continuity is all-important. Global and national power grids depend on teleprotection and SCADA sensors to provide real-time data on the state of the power grid. This data is critical to pinpointing trouble spots on the grid and enabling relays to switch off power lines that could destabilize the grid and propagate widespread outages. This sensor data must be delivered with the lowest latency and switchover times, otherwise power issues are missed causing power outages.

Many utilities have used IP/MPLS networks to transport this critical teleprotection and SCADA data between their substations and control centers. In the same way that commuters need to get to those important meetings, teleprotection and SCADA data must be transported within strict latency limits to enable the power grid to self-heal. Due to the dynamic nature of IP/MPLS networks, traffic congestion can occur at any time, impacting the ability to carry this mission-critical traffic within desired latency specifications. The sheer size and complexity of utility grid IP networks means that traditional network management systems aren’t up to the task.

Real-world Problems

There are countless real-world examples of utility applications and service problems stemming from misunderstandings of the way large IP network routing and traffic logically operate:

Logical network misconfigurations: A power utility’s two adjacent campuses were exchanging traffic via a low-speed WAN link due to a misconfiguration, resulting in degraded application performance.

Compromised redundancy: An expensive backup WAN link to a site was deployed, only to discover when the primary link failed that the backup wasn’t correctly configured to carry the traffic.

Security breaches: A utility was blind to a backdoor into its network through a contractor’s network.

Loss of application data: An electric utility lost critical connectivity to its power grid control data due to a routing misconfiguration that was only seen when a routine maintenance operation caused control data to be lost.

Degraded services: A service provider failed to detect the root cause of weeks of intermittent service outages at a utility customer’s site. A local utility operator integrating time-division multiplexing (TDM) systems with its new IP/MPLS network faced challenges because the line protection application used for monitoring AC current at substations was highly sensitive to delay and jitter on RSVP-TE tunnels.

The common thread among all these examples is that the problems involve the routing logic in the network, rather than the status of individual devices. While necessary, traditional device management and end-to-end application performance management solutions provide no insight into the logical operation of traffic and routing. As a result, utility IT departments often have no visibility into the root causes of application degradations. For enterprises with less critical applications, this lack of visibility may not matter as much, but for utility grids, there is no room for error.

Leveraging data-driven analytics

In the same way that commuters use Waze to get to those important meetings, utility companies can use advanced software and analytics to navigate the logical operation of IP networks. This can be done through route analytics technology, which is used by many large enterprises, network operators, service providers and government agencies.

Route analytics works by using a virtual network appliance running specialized software that acts like a passive router, but actively listens to routing protocol updates sent by all routers in the network and computing the network-wide routing state in real time. This can be deployed by network teams to maintain availability and performance of critical SCADA applications, including national and regional electrical power utilities, private and public transportation and logistics organizations, as well as large municipal, IP network-based traffic engineering systems.

The insights utilities need to succeed

To succeed in utility environments where large, complex IP networks create variability in how application traffic is delivered, network managers need to look beyond traditional network management tools and understand their networks’ control plane operations. With real-time routing telemetry overlaid with traffic flow data, back-in-time forensics, and what-if modeling capabilities, utility network managers gain the visibility they need to ensure that SCADA applications operate with the highest-possible network service continuity.

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