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Utility communications benefit from SDN

Just like in many other industries, software-defined networking (SDN) has the potential to change the way utilities run their communications network. Quite simply, SDN gives power utilities a new way to optimize their communications networks, improve operations, and reduce costs.

SDN offers a new way of building and operating communications networks. Essentially, it provides operators with dynamic control of connections and services to use network assets and resources effectively. It enables them to adapt and respond to changing demands and traffic patterns quickly and efficiently, as and when needed.

New challenges require new solutions

At first glance, it may appear that SDN does not apply to a utility communications network because the connectivity required for most grid applications today is usually static. But grid modernization initiatives have created new operational challenges for utilities that are similar to those faced by other network operators.

Utilities worldwide are adopting new technologies to address new market demand in a cost-effectively way. Microgrids and bandwidth intensive applications like CCTV and mobile workforce communications platforms are being added to the operational mix. As a result, grids are becoming smarter and more distributed, and the workforce is more connected at any time, from anywhere.

These changes are putting a strain on IT and operational technology (OT) networks, which must become more intelligent and agile. Both networks must be able to scale out to support more services and more users quickly and efficiently.

SDN makes it easier to:

  • Respond to evolving market demand dynamically
  • Address operational challenges
  • Improve efficiency

By adopting SDN, utilities can enhance microgrid deployments and converged IT/OT networks with smarter, end-to-end control, automation, and service agility.

SDN and microgrids

Consider the benefits of SDN for microgrids.

Microgrid deployments enable utilities to provide a more reliable supply of electricity to large commercial facilities and residential communities. To operate microgrids efficiently, utilities need to extend their operational networks to reach all microgrids. With this extension, utilities must be able to rapidly provision and manage a significantly higher number of gateway routers. And they must be able to extend the physical connectivity of their networks to all microgrids.

While utilities could use fiber, microwave, and copper connections to reach substations today, extending the operations network to all distributed microgrids presents an immense challenge. But by deploying a dynamic and intelligent software-defined network over existing infrastructure, utilities can get the full benefits of SDN without changing or upgrading their existing networks (Figure 1).

Figure 1. SDN deployed over an existing network

The SDN operates transparently over a private WAN network, service provider VPN or the Internet. It gives utilities complete flexibility to reach deployed microgrids. And utilities can retain common provisioning and operational procedures. This improves operations and increases the efficiency of service delivery processes. We will publish an article in July that provides a more detailed explanation of how SDN can enhance microgrid communications networks.

SDN and IT/OT convergence

The benefits of software-defined networking also extend to the integration of IT and OT silos.

Today most, if not all, utility IT and OT applications and networks are managed by different silos in their organizations. As these networks are integrated into a common shared network, utilities may still want to preserve existing operating practices for the time being. This will retain the autonomy each side has to rapidly create, change, and delete network services as needed.

Some of the available network management solutions allow multiple organizations to share a common network through the use of VPN technology. But these solutions don’t allow each side to administer network resources with full autonomy.

An SDN deployment enables utilities to fully control and operate a converged IT/OT network without customizing the operation support system for each network element and service type. It provides the required network, service agility, and automation capabilities by virtually segmenting the integrated network into “slices” for multiple entities in the organization.

Through this network slicing, each entity owns a network slice, which is a set of pre-assigned network assets, such as an equipment port, complete with full administrator privileges. This allows all entities to retain their operational processes in the initial transition to IT/OT convergence and avoid disruptions. As convergence efforts proceed, utilities can move applications from one network slice to another, based on business and operational needs.

SDN supports modernization

Ultimately, SDN is the ideal complement to any utility modernization strategy.

By providing smarter end-to-end network control, automation, and service agility, SDN allows utilities to prepare for any new operational challenges and flourish in ever-changing markets.

For more information on SDN and utility communications, see the Nokia white paper: Is SDN right for utilities?

Hansen Chan

About Hansen Chan

Hansen Chan is with Enterprise Solution IP Product Marketing with a special focus on digital industries and government. With over 25 years of protocol testing, network consulting and product management experience, he’s a go-to speaker at international industry conferences. When he’s not talking networks, he’s reading up on history and religion, and listening to Baroque and 20th century classical music.

Tweet him @hchan888

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