Critical infrastructure systems are the backbone that our country and economy were built on. As our need for communications, power and other utilities has grown, the critical infrastructure networks have evolved to meet those needs – both in size and the technology used to control them.
The most recent innovations, like smart meters and grids, have given utilities providers a whole new level of control and oversight. Unfortunately, they have also opened up a whole new world of problems that will require better critical infrastructure monitoring to overcome.
Smart control network devices allow a technician to connect a laptop and interface with the device through a rudimentary command line interface. This method works well, assuming that…
- it is known where the device is located.
- the device can be reached (and quickly, if there’s an emergency).
- the interfacing technician has been trained to use the relatively unfriendly access interface.
- no unauthorized users access the device.
The realities of managing a large control network means that those assumptions will very rarely all be true – and that they can add problems and unneeded complexity during a time when urgency is critical. These vulnerabilities in modern control networks have led to a new evolution of critical infrastructure monitoring – the smart data controller.
What is a Smart Data Controller?
Smart data controllers enable remote access to control network devices by creating a web-based interface to the existing DNP, Modbus or other protocol networks. This remote access can be used for a number of tasks on the control network, including:
- Software updates
- Monitoring transmission rates (and watching for atypical behavior)
- Status and Error-Code reading
- Software-based troubleshooting and maintenance
- Locating unregistered devices
Crucially, though, a smart data controller allows for the entire control network to be monitored and managed at the same time. Instead of needing to interface with each device individually, commands can be sent to the entire network with just a few keystrokes.
Benefits of Remote Critical Infrastructure Monitoring
Better, lower-priced utilities services.
By conducting routine maintenance, system upgrades and even troubleshooting from a remote location, a firm can save itself the manpower costs and fuel charges that come from sending a technician out into the field. Utility companies that find ways to reduce the budget spent on repairs and maintenance (while maintaining or even improving service levels) are able to lower costs for their customers.
Keep transmission networks running.
A busy transmission network can have thousands of smart devices on it, and accounting for them all is a constant challenge. Apart from knowing if they’re running the most recent software update, many networks have undocumented devices running on them. If an undocumented device suddenly fails, finding and repairing it is a costly and inefficient procedure.
Protect critical infrastructure from security attacks.
Nowadays, transmission devices have a new vulnerability: hackers. Many devices were not designed with the kind of firewall-style security protocols necessary to protect them from vulnerabilities that exist in the modern internet. As such thousands of these devices are hacked every year. Often, these hacked devices are used to deny utility services to large areas, compromising the safety and comfort of many customers.
What To Look For in A Remote Monitoring Device
There are a few smart data controllers on the market – and at their core, they all do the same thing. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re all built the same. When investigating smart data controllers to your control network, it’s important to look for these key features:
Element Resistant Housings
It may seem elementary, but not all data controllers are properly built to withstand the elements that constantly attack them.
Control Network Protocols
Smart data controllers are designed to translate between control network protocols and traditional internet protocols. Be sure that the company you choose to purchase devices from has integrated your control network protocol (or is willing to create a custom firmware for you).
Cellular Direct Access
Eventually, even a data controller will be inaccessible through the internet or need to be accessed directly for some other reason. While most smart data controllers will offer traditional RF connection for remote access, a cellular connection allows for much easier connectivity because the technician doesn’t need to be as close, nor do they require line of sight to make a connection.
The “internet of things” has come to critical infrastructure networks – and brought cost savings to utilities and customers alike. A modern control network requires a new kind of interface – one that provides insight, control, security and peace of mind.