With cloud-based applications providing water utilities with more resilient and flexible network management options, many are finally moving away from legacy systems. As channel sales manager for Asia Pacific at technology provider Ovarro, Craig Abbott discusses the latest developments in as-a-service models.
What are as-a-service models and how do they fit with water?
As-a-service models are subscription-based applications, with infrastructure that is entirely managed and maintained by an external supplier. XaaS – anything-as-service - is the collective term that encompasses software-as-a-service (SaaS), data-as-a-service (DaaS) and information-as-a-service (IaaS), among many others.
Many water authorities would already be familiar with DaaS, for the collection of flow and pressure data for network management. With the full XaaS model, rather than just supply software, the contract agreements include secure data collection and storage, server hardware, and ongoing updates and new features. All end-users need is a device and connection to the network.
An annual subscription gives organisations the latest software version, removing the costly task of maintaining systems that may rapidly become obsolete. Under the XaaS model, software patches including the latest features, improved algorithms, defences against a new virus and even upgrades to ageing hardware can all be part of the service.
These services allow the water authority to focus on their core responsibility of water system management and leave the data chain to external IT and analyst specialists.
How can utilities’ security concerns be addressed?
Every water authority considering an XaaS application should challenge their providers to answer any security concerns. The good news is, there is an applicable standard to conform to – ISO 27001. This is internationally recognised as the best practice framework for information security management.
Another consideration raised by security experts is to have an active defence strategy. Older systems would be developed, commissioned and then isolated to remove any cyber attack vectors. Unfortunately, we frequently see this type of protection fail. Defending against external attacks requires ongoing discipline. This means continuous improvement of the application software, antivirus software and operating systems.
Under a traditional model, updates would require a rollout to every machine, which takes time. Under a SaaS model, with cloud managed systems, everybody can be upgraded before their next login to the system. This means that if a new attack method is uncovered, a systemwide update can be performed before the new method can be taken advantage of.
In what areas should utilities be embedding XaaS solutions?
XaaS solutions should be adopted wherever they can be. This would eliminate a significant amount of legacy computer hardware that would no longer need to be managed. Desktop machines could be replaced by thin clients, tablets or smart phones and automatic software upgrades would eliminate the need for a software management team to physically or remotely connect every machine, at every company location, to perform manual updates.
During the pandemic, many water utilities made significant changes to the way they work. Remote working is now common practice, and under Xaas models, the benefits of not being tied to particular premises can be realised, enabling staff to securely access information wherever they are.
What operational challenges can XaaS solutions help to solve?
Most organisations do not take full advantage of all data collected from their water networks. This is where they may look towards an information-as-a-service (IaaS) solution, where customers pay for the delivery of actionable information.
Ovarro is working in partnership with water authorities to analyse alarms from water networks. What has been determined, is that many incidents, such as a pollution events, are often the result of an alarm being missed. Many operators are so inundated with alarms, they fail to respond to unfolding events leading to higher impact incidents that create operational inefficiencies or result in penalties.
We have developed AlarmVision, a cloud-based, real-time alarm analysis service. This IaaS analyses the stream of alarms, comparing the frequency to internationally recognised key performance indicators to determine if the system is being properly managed.
Additional information is also provided to identify common alarm patterns – is there one alarm that is flooding the network, is there a particular site generating many alarms or is there particular time of the day where overloads occur? With this information, water utilities and municipalities can plan an appropriate response to reduce the number of alarms occurring to a level where key events can be tracked and dealt with appropriately.
What are the risks of maintaining legacy systems rather than moving to XaaS?
Resisting change can be expensive. Many organisations have operational systems still utilising legacy 3G or 2G wireless telecommunications and even landline telephone networks. Telecom operators are shutting these networks down to reduce their costs and make way for 5G technology. Any legacy hardware will need to be replaced.
The opportunity to move to an XaaS model can remove uncertainty. A DaaS model for the supply of network pressures, for example, means that no matter what happens to the telecom network, a company can still receive its data. Where hardware and software management become the responsibly of the supplier, it is no longer a risk for the client.
What steps should the sector be taking now to avoid pitfalls in future?
The water sector should review existing systems and inquire about the costs of the upcoming refreshes. Operators can then compare that to the cost of available service solutions. Often an XaaS model will remove a large capital expenditure, replacing it with more manageable annual or monthly operational expenditure.
Reach out to your existing system suppliers and ask them about solutions they may already have. If you can share operational data with them today, it is likely that you will be able to gain insightful information and improve your operational KPIs almost immediately.
Which sectors should the water industry look to for examples of best practice?
Ovarro collects and manages data for clients in a wide variety of industries so we seek to learn from any sector where secure data management is required. Financial services, for example, traditionally has the domain of large, brick-and-mortar institutions but smaller players have stepped in to take a significant share of the market, without a storefront in sight.
Sensitive data like money, assets and transaction histories are now managed online. The industry leaders help clients analyse spending habits and apply for additional services, adapting to clients’ needs faster than traditional banks.
What role does innovation play?
Innovation and the XaaS model form a symbiotic relationship. Once data is freely available for analysis, it encourages innovation and the development of new algorithms for analysis. This could identify a new dataset that needs to be collected, a new software service required or insights from existing data.
It also provides a fertile ground for users and developers to collaborate, testing and trialing new ideas for continuous improvement of water network operations.
How is Ovarro supporting the water industry in this area?
Ovarro recognises that data will invariably be stored in the cloud. This shift unlocks XaaS opportunities. We are currently expanding our DaaS solutions and are already trialing SaaS and IaaS packages that dovetail with the data we collect. We have recently developed packages like AlarmVision, and we have more in the pipeline. Some services will also work with non-Ovarro systems, providing insight for anyone in the water industry.
The water sector has a reputation for being conservative. It is Ovarro’s vision that by connecting numerous technologies to collect, store and analyse data, we can provide a platform for the industry to become more flexible and innovative, moving away from legacy systems that are holding them back, so they can adapt to the challenges of the future.