Fears of the Cloud Have Been Greatly Exaggerated – The Advantages of Cloud Computing for Remote Substation Monitoring

Advanced thermal and visual sensors allow utilities to monitor the condition of remote substations from a centralized location. With continuous, real-time thermal and visual data, operations and maintenance teams can allocate resources more effectively, reduce the cost of maintenance and repairs, and improve reliability through condition-based maintenance programs.

Utilities have two primary choices to connect to the sensors and access the data. Traditionally, they would turn to their IT department to build an internal network, invest in IT infrastructure, install software on user devices, and individually update software whenever a new version was available.

Today, however, many utilities are transitioning to the cloud and accessing their data through an easy-to-use online dashboard. There are significant advantages to this approach, not least of which is that it does not require utilities to build and manage a network for each substation.

That said, some utilities are still unsure if the cloud is the right approach for their organization. This article will introduce the cloud before discussing the benefits of each approach.

What Is the Cloud?

Despite the seemingly ubiquitous role the cloud plays in our daily lives, many of us still aren’t entirely sure what the cloud actually is. This uncertainty can lead to confusion when deciding whether to embrace the cloud or turn to an internal network.

Amazon, the world’s largest cloud provider, defines cloud computing as “the on-demand delivery of IT resources over the internet.”

Rather than purchasing and building hardware, you simply access computing power, storage, or databases on an as-needed basis. An easy example of this is productivity software such as Office 365 or Google Workspace, where documents are stored on the cloud and can be accessed from any device using a web browser and a login. Banking, e-commerce, streaming platforms, and email are all examples of the cloud being used to transmit and store sensitive information.

Across industries, enterprises are increasingly turning to the benefits of the cloud, and 2020 saw cloud infrastructure spending surpass on-premises data center spending for the first time.

The Benefits of the Cloud for Remote Substation Monitoring

As mentioned above, the key difference between the cloud and an internal network is that the cloud does not require utilities to build out their own infrastructure. As a result, there’s significantly less upfront capital investment required to connect sensors and start accessing the data.

Instead, utilities simply pay the cloud provider a monthly or yearly fee depending on their usage requirements, shifting the cost from a capital expense to an ongoing operating cost and reducing the burden on IT departments.

A second benefit of the cloud is that it is easy to scale up or down depending on the needs of the utility. While building out network infrastructure for a single remote substation may be viable, this process must be repeated for each site the utility installs thermal and visual sensors. With the cloud, utilities can simply add substations, sensors, and users without building new infrastructure or installing new software each time.

Finally, an internal network requires software to be installed on each user device. Any time a new user is added, a new software license must be installed, and it must be continuously updated every time an update is made available.

Instead, cloud-based software can easily be accessed wherever the user is on whichever device they are on. Further, this simplifies the software maintenance process because updates only need to be pushed out once to take effect for all users.

Combined, these benefits make the cloud more affordable, scalable, and easier to implement and maintain than an internal private network, especially when utilities are monitoring multiple substations.

When Would Utilities Benefit From an Internal Network?

Given the benefits above, it may seem like the cloud is the obvious choice. And for many utilities, it will be. But there are some scenarios where an internal private network comes out ahead.

Some utilities, especially larger ones, may have governance policies that require all data to remain inside the organization. Where the cloud stores and transmits data using the cloud provider’s infrastructure, an internal network keeps everything within the utility’s control.

Large utilities may also have the IT resources and skills needed to build and manage the network. In these cases, they may be able to justify the added expense, but they should still evaluate whether this will take scarce IT resources away from other strategic initiatives.

Finally, an internal network can reduce the risk of outages when utilities require continuous access. The cloud depends on a connection to the internet, meaning that downtime caused by a mobile or internet service provider can prevent access to thermal and visual data.

What About Security?

The most common concern around using the cloud typically comes down to security. As mentioned, the cloud stores data outside of the organization, meaning utilities lose some control over it when compared to an internal network.

However, utilities must assess the type of data that is being transmitted and stored to determine if it is truly sensitive data worth the additional investment. For example, thermal and visual sensors deployed at remote substations transmit temperature readings, an image of the site, and some basic information about maintenance and repairs. In most cases, malicious actors cannot use this data, and it cannot be used to disrupt the flow of power to customers.

Additionally, cloud providers can often invest far more heavily in security than even the largest utilities. Despite the concern, the cloud is generally highly secure, and utilities can ensure that their data is kept within their country of origin to comply with any regulations.

A recent Gartner report shows that cloud infrastructure will suffer 60 percent fewer security incidents than those in traditional data centers, suggesting that security should no longer be an inhibitor to the adoption of the cloud.

What Should Utilities Choose?

In the end, both the cloud and an internal private network will allow utilities to access the data they need when monitoring remote substation assets. For most, the cost, scalability, ease of implementation, and simplified maintenance of the cloud will outweigh any potential advantages of building an internal network from scratch. For those who must ensure all data remains inside the organization, an internal network can still be a viable option, as long as utilities are willing and able to absorb the higher upfront cost.

Systems with Intelligence has solutions that meet the needs of utilities regardless of which approach they choose. Before deciding which approach is best, utilities should focus on the benefits of gaining a continuous view of the health of their assets. With access to real-time data, utilities can reduce maintenance costs, improve safety, and enhance reliability by transitioning to a condition-based maintenance program. From there, they can decide whether the cloud or an internal private network is best suited to their business needs.

John Nam is Vice President Engineering at Systems With Intelligence.