A Simple Solution for More Secure Pipelines

by , | Jan 3, 2023 | Capital Projects, Control & Safety Systems, Cybersecurity, Oil & Gas

Todd Walden

Todd Walden

Author and Blogger

The world is changing rapidly, and one of the most significant changes in decades is a strong focus on sustainable operation in the energy sector. The pipeline industry in particular has had to increase focus on more sustainable operation, eliminating transmission delays and leaks while continuously evolving product mixes that deliver more renewable options.

As Emerson’s Steve Hill points out in his recent article in World Pipelines, that monitoring requires a lot of data, but not every mile of pipeline will have access to reliable communication to ensure that data is delivered in real-time. And to further complicate matters, recent cybersecurity incidents impacting pipelines have made it clear that any communication must not only be reliable, but also secure.

Fortunately, pipeline operations teams have found new solutions to meet these needs, including one critical change—the shift to distributed network protocol 3 (DNP3). DNP3 delivers data reliably and efficiently while simultaneously minimizing the risk of cyberattacks.

Miles and miles of remote pipeline

Much of the real-time communication from pipelines happens via remote terminal units (RTUs). These devices gather data from the pipeline and transmit it in real-time or near-real-time to the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system. However, pipelines cover many miles, and field operations and operational technology teams often must monitor sections of pipeline in very remote areas, with little or no communication infrastructure. In these areas, Steve explains,

“Operators and maintenance personnel rely on cellular modem, satellite communication, or other technologies to transmit data to the SCADA system. Often, these communication technologies are too unreliable to guarantee consistent real-time communication. The teams monitoring the pipeline know they will intermittently lose connection and design their infrastructure accordingly.”

Pipelines are often in remote areas with little to no communication infrastructure.

Fortunately, RTUs are designed to handle this intermittent communication. They store data when connections drop, timestamping the information to maintain visibility to make it easier to reinsert into the SCADA system at a later time. When the connection is restored, the device automatically transmits the data, and the SCADA system backfills it to ensure consistent datasets.

But is it secure?

Many pipeline operators rely on outdated technology—the Enron Modbus protocol—to transmit this data from the RTUs to the SCADA system. This legacy protocol does not meet the needs of today’s more secure operations. Steve explains,

“Today’s pipeline operators need cybersecure technologies to move data across their networks, and Modbus is not a cybersecure protocol.”

Teams can make changes to Modbus to make it more secure, but best practices require an inherently secure protocol for safer operation. That’s where DNP3 comes in. DNP3 has been around in the power industry for a long time, but pipeline operators are just beginning to take advantage of its benefits as a more secure protocol.

DNP3 is both secure and fast. Steve elaborates,

“DNP3 is optimized for high-speed communications, allowing data to be transferred across the network by exception as it changes, while including the same timestamp metadata as Enron Modbus. In addition, DNP3 includes support for secure authentication between RTUs and the SCADA system.”

But DNP3 is not an encrypted protocol. Most DNP3 communication is unencrypted, making it much faster to allow the high-level communication performance pipelines need. It is only when users or the system perform sensitive activities that authentication is required.

Preparing for the future

Building a secure future for pipeline technology means adopting the newest standards for communication. Cybersecurity by obscurity is no longer an option. Pipelines are on cyber attackers’ radar and the teams best prepared for the future will be those who choose a secure solution today.

Emerson is seeing many customers take advantage of DNP3 for its cybersecure operations and extensibility. Steven shares the example that Emerson has extended DNP3 to carry RTU files containing electronic flow measurement data, alarms, and events for even better visibility, even after an outage disrupts communication.

To learn more about the DNP3 protocol, including additional features and functionality and to learn how it might fit in your environment, read the article in its entirety at World Pipelines.

DNP3 is starting to see increased use in the pipeline industry.

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The opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the authors. Content published here is not read or approved by Emerson before it is posted and does not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Emerson.