Dynamic Computer Network Detects Cyber Attacks Before they Wreak Havoc on the Grid

Posted on September 05, 2016
Posted By: Corrie Goldman

Routers and switches in power grid communication networks direct electricity where it’s needed, when it’s needed. By and large, the switches are managed by predetermined, preprogrammed commands. This static IP networking architecture is nearly impossible to reconfigure on the fly, hardly an ideal scenario given how quickly energy moves on the grid.

A research team led by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professors Ravishankar Iyer and Zbigniew Kalbarczyk, adapted a new, more flexible network model for use in the power industry.

Built with support for the Siebel Energy Institute, the model is called software-defined networking (SDN). Because SDN separates the network control function from the network forwarding function, it is much easier to reconfigure in real-time than Internet Protocol (IP) networks, the standard used by most utility companies. Such systems are being used in other industries but have not yet been widely adopted in the power industry.

SDN based smart grid security has been approved as a theme in new U.S. Department of Energy Cyber Resilient Energy Delivery Consortium (CREDC). Iyer and Kalbarczyk are currently investigating opportunities with the CREDC to see how their technology can be applied in the context of protecting nuclear power plants from cyber-attacks.

Iyer and Kalbarczyk spoke with the Siebel Energy Institute about the project.

Q: Is this the first such project to investigate how SDN could be applied to energy systems? If not, what is unique about your research?

This is the first project to investigate the Power Grid security in the context of SDN specifically, how SDN can support and enhance security of the grid. A unique aspect of this effort is a resiliency testbed (ER-TEST) that integrates a power system simulator with an SDN based real SCADA network to allow experimental assessment of resiliency of energy delivery. In a broader context, investigating SDN in the energy delivery system not only contributes to SDN research, but also introduces a previously unexplored direction to cyber physical system research.

Q: What would be a typical scenario where you would envision SDN capability being useful to a grid operator?

The adoption of advanced networking technology such as SDN in energy delivery systems (EDS) can improve control efficiency, reduce operational costs, and increase the resiliency of the overall system against accidents and cyber-attacks. As an example, we used the network programmability enabled by SDN to obfuscate the status of a system configuration that would be visible to a potential adversary in order to prevent the development of an attack strategies.

Q: The research shows how SDN can be used to prevent malicious attacks by luring attackers to decoys. What does that entail?

The network programmability enabled by SDN can be used to randomize the appearance of the two primary operations in power systems, i.e., data acquisition and control, to external users, while maintaining normal operation of the power grid. External users (e.g., attackers) who have no knowledge on the actual network connectivity fail to learn the complete set of physical measurements and expose themselves when they attempt to access “off-line” devices (i.e., temporary disconnected from the network). Further, we spoof device responses (e.g., generating decoy measurements), provided to external users accessing “off-line” devices. Deceived by the decoy measurements attackers launch ineffective attack strategies.

Read the rest of the interview on the Siebel Energy Institute website here.

Authored By:
Corrie directs communications and events for The Siebel Energy Institute, a nonprofit organization that funds cooperative research grants in data analytics and machine learning to accelerate advancements in energy science.

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