For communications interop, follow protocols

Industrial devices will have a greater need to communicate outside of the industrial facility—whether that's to the local utility, a service provider, or their own renewable resource generation facility.


When it comes to communications, industrial facilities have traditionally been islands unto themselves. Historically, they have employed protocols for communications throughout their plant control system that were chosen based on the needs of that plant, without regard to connection with outside facilities. Often, these have been tried and true legacy protocols; Modbus and Modbus+ are a couple that come to mind. LonWorks is another. There are any number of industrial protocols, some proprietary, others freely available.

These protocols have worked well in the past due to the "island" nature of industrial facilities. Because they've been self-contained, the industrial community hasn't really had to think much about the interoperability of their devices.

Today, however, in what we might call the "Smart Grid era," industrial devices will have a greater need to communicate outside of the industrial facility—whether that's to the local utility, a service provider, or their own renewable resource generation facility.

Now that the industrial world has a growing need to communicate with third parties, they're going to find that in these older legacy protocols they've got a mismatch to the outside world. Or they may not have all the features that the outside world requires, such as time sequence of events, greater security on control functions, certain things that the utilities and third-party suppliers will ask for. And that's where it ends up becoming a somewhat difficult issue to deal with.

Because of that emerging interconnectedness, one approach will lead to a relatively cumbersome path of customizing the integration between different protocols. That's expensive, time-consuming, and a one-off solution.

Instead, I'd recommend that the consulting-specifying engineer and industrial facility owners and managers take a close look at IEEE Standard 1815, which is also known as the Distributed Network Protocol, or DNP3. Here's a link to more information in a news release from last November, when the IEEE announced further work was beginning on secure authentication protocols within the standard.

At that time, my colleague H. Lee Smith, chair of the IEEE 1815 Working Group made this statement, which simply underscores the point of this blog:

"As the rate of bolder, more sophisticated cyber attacks continues to spiral upward, ensuring data integrity and security has become increasingly challenging. By necessity, preventing unauthorized intrusion into critical systems has become a top priority," said H. Lee Smith, chair, IEEE 1815 Working Group and president, DNP Users Group. "By delivering robust security protocols that are attuned to both existing and emerging threats, Secure Authentication Version 5 will help minimize risk while ensuring the continued efficient and safe operation of vital infrastructures."

That particular press release went on to say:

"The IEEE 1815 DNP3 standard is a robust, multi-layered framework for achieving greater device interoperability. Developed collaboratively by IEEE and the DNP Users Group, it has become one of the most widely adopted standards in the process automation industry. The standard has also emerged as a fundamental element in a growing number of global Smart Grid deployments by facilitating seamless interaction and secure two-way communications between diverse systems and devices."

IEEE Standard 1815 DNP3 provides the industrial facility sector with all the features and functions they need to interface with the rest of the world. DNP3 is also the most widely used protocol now in the world by electric utilities. So there's a tremendous amount of interoperability. And it can be found in almost any intelligent electronic device. It's been widely available in intelligent electronic devices (IEDs) for probably the last 10 to 15 years. But it's only recently become an IEEE standard.

IEEE Standard 1815 was developed by a group called the DNP User Group. And the DNP User Group essentially functions to maintain that interoperability. It's been wildly successful. For new installations, it's probably the most common protocol that's being used around the world today.

Sam Sciacca, PE, senior member of IEEE, president of SCS Consulting LLC, Winsted, Conn.Sam Sciacca is an active senior member in the IEEE and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) in the area of utility automation. He has more than 25 years of experience in the domestic and international electrical utility industries. Sciacca serves as the chair of two IEEE working groups that focus on cyber security for electric utilities: the Substations Working Group C1 (P1686) and the Power System Relay Committee Working Group H13 (PC37.240). Sciacca also is president of SCS Consulting.

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