California Independent Operator System Launches First SDN Service for Critical Infrastructure, Powered by Dispersive Technologies


Critical infrastructure management may never be the same.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen an extraordinary movement in the real-time communications industry, with cities, universities, transportation companies and even non-profit organizations becoming service providers – offering broadband access, mobile applications, and full business applications to end-users, bypassing traditional companies in the US.

Only a decade or two ago, there were only a few options for buying digitally connected voice, data and video services – tier one network operators, cable/MSO operators, and other competitive local exchange providers.

As more and more is made possible using Internet Protocol, and leveraging the most resilient uber network of them all – the public Internet – traditional carriers have lost ground as they are being outpaced by innovators who leverage transport to support the real money-making applications. The first wave of impact has been primarily in the consumer space (with extremely viral services like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and others), while the second wave of impact is now being felt in the enterprise business applications domain (with Skype, Box, Slack and other web-based services crushing the economics of last-generation productivity apps, and causing tech giants like Microsoft to go over-the-top with initiatives like Office 365).

But, is the public Internet secure enough to handle connectivity for Critical Infrastructure – the energy and water comapanies, whose systems must be managed – and protected – for the safety and security of the public?

Last week, one of the most successful organizations in critical infrastructure, the California  Independent System Operator coalition announced it has rolled out a managed network services solution to its members, a “new networking service that will more efficiently and effectively connect entities using real-time devices to the ISO‘s energy management system.“

Humboldt Redwood Company, owner of a 28.8 megawatt biomass power plant, became the first operator to be brought online with the network. The unit will generate steam and electricity by annually burning approximately 250,000 bone-dry tons of wood waste from the company’s sawmill and planer mill in Scotia, California.

“HRC is pleased to be the first California plant using this network,” said Jim Pelkey, Humboldt Redwood Company’s Chief Financial Officer. “When making the choice, we were especially impressed with the minimal ramp-up time and extensive security measures. Additionally, the support provided by Dispersive Technologies team was excellent.”

Developed and operated by Dispersive, the Internet-based, software-defined network is the first one approved by any ISO for connecting capacity generation assets to its control system, with ongoing measurement of critical data essential to the efficient and secure management of this inspiring new sustainable electricity generation system.

This is a big shift away from older technologies using SCADA data transport on systems that are two decades old. Richard E. Harrison, president and CEO of Dispersive Technologies said in the announcement that old remote measurement systems are “slow to deploy, costly to operate, limited in their flexibility to support non-affiliated user groups, and challenging to scale. As a result, these traditional private networks and VPNs no longer represent best practices for protecting data-in-motion.”

Dispersive, an Atlanta-based company, which has been working with the California ISO since 2014, offers a Critical Infrastructure Software-Defined Network solution connecting various parties, including regional balancing authorities, utilities, independent power producers, and service companies supporting the power industry.

CISDN is a specific implementation of Dispersive’s network virtualization platform designed in collaboration with the ISO.  With the introduction of CISDN, any of California ISO’s participants can use the public Internet to connect any generating asset to the ISO control network, a first in the electric power industry.

Harrison went on to say, “Most network services used to securely transport SCADA data depend on technologies almost 20 years old. “They’re slow to deploy, costly to operate, limited in their flexibility to support non-affiliated user groups, and challenging to scale.”

Dispersive’s Critical Infrastructure Software-Defined Network was designed to addresses those problems. This service makes it possible to establish secure virtual network connections to any resource by using any available local Internet access, and is being made available to multiple market participants, including regional balance authorities, utilities, independent power producers, and service companies supporting the power industry.

So, how is this secured? How is it possible for energy companies to use the public Internet to manage such sensitive data movement and support such critical application?

Christian Arechavaleta, a systems integration engineer for Pacific Power Engineers, and part of the roll-out of the California ISO Humbolt Redwood project, explains “because Dispersive’s CISDN requires only a standard broadband connection to the public Internet, it’s much easier and less expensive to install than other networks. A utility or cogeneration plant can deploy it in days rather than weeks. And the network’s integrated firewall protects field assets and assures highly secure communications.”

Multiple layers of security, starting with multi-path packet dispersion, dynamic encryption, end-point isolation, DDOS mitigation, and numerous other capabilities attracted California ISO to the solution.

We asked Douglas Dimola, Dispersive’s director of product, about the“integrated firewall“ and other technologies Dispersive uses that ensures the securitization of data and applications running on an Internet-based network.

The California ISO will rely on the Dispersive CISDN to secure direct telemetry from any generating asset throughout its service area. Plans to expand the network to include metering and ICCP data streams are currently underway.

The California ISO provides open access to one of the largest power grids in the world. Its network of high-voltage transmission power lines is supported by a competitive energy market and comprehensive grid planning

This non-profit public benefit corporation monitors about 70,000 megawatts of electricity from nearly 940 power plants connected to 26,000 circuit miles of transmission lines serving 30 million customers, and “is dedicated to the continual development and reliable operation of a modern grid that operates for the benefit of consumers.”

They have been active and vocal addressing the global climate challenge, “integrating renewable power and advanced technologies that will help meet a sustainable energy future efficiently and cleanly.”

Leveraging one major public asset, the Internet, to better operate, manage and secure critical infrastructure, could, over time, support much more efficient energy supplies, and more digital integration of sustainable energy sources including wind and solar generation, and bulk energy storage into the grid. 

The California ISO is one of nine independent system operators in North America. Collectively, they deliver over 2.2 million gigawatt-hours of electricity each year and oversee more than 270,000 miles of high-voltage power lines. Two-thirds of the United States is served by these independent grid operators.

Ensuring the data that is moving inside IP networks to “power” the applications monitoring, analyzing and operating digital energy solutions is secured and protected against the dark threat of hacking and disrupting critical infrastructure is paramount. We’ll continue to follow this initial deployment and future roll-outs of the intersection of the energy – and communications – grids. 

Edited by Erik Linask
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Contributing Writer

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