Just when we thought our dependency on digital devices – and in turn, our susceptibility to cyberattack – couldn’t get greater, along came a global pandemic. Luckily Nexus Controls is a company that is ready for the challenge.
We live in a digitised world in which each of us every day sits amid hundreds if not thousands of data points.
This article was originally published as part of the PEI print edition in
Smart Energy International Issue 4-2020.
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“The world is becoming more connected due to digitalisation every minute of the day,” says Terry Knight, of Nexus Controls. “These connections provide the data and asset visibility to make better decisions that we could only dream about a few years ago.” Yet Knight is acutely aware that “at the same time, these connections can increase our vulnerability to a cyberattack”.
Nexus Controls – a Baker Hughes business – has been at the forefront of control solutions long before anyone thought up the term ‘digital transformation’.
Knight says that there are two key shifts that digitalisation is driving: the first with regard to an aging workforce and the second around industrial cybersecurity for the operational technology network.
Nexus Controls has tackled both these trends head-on. “There has been a growing shift in the workforce to become more of a ‘digital first’ population,” says Knight, adding that this pressure comes in tandem with the retirement of an increasing number of the so-called ‘aging’ workforce.
Knight says that Nexus Controls has harnessed that “institutional knowledge and it has influenced our development of the Nexus OnCore platform. We used this tremendous experience base to simplify our Human Machine Interface and make it extremely intuitive, so that as organisations that hire younger, lesser experienced staff, we can learn the product rapidly and become productive in less time than would be possible using older generation control systems.”
And the company has stayed ahead of the curve as the likes of wireless technology, the Cloud and the Internet of Things have become mainstream.
“The Industrial Internet of Things has forced us to take another look at the way customers want to utilise their control system to manage plant operations,” he explains.
“Customers are no longer looking just for access to big data and data aggregation, but are looking for outcomes or recommendations based on the data to improve their overall efficiency.” As a result, he says, Nexus Controls has expanded its product capability. “Our Nexus OnCore Control System supports ‘Edge devices’ including IIoT devices to securely support the acquisition and analysis of the data, as well as remote monitoring capability for customers who want to consolidate expertise in different geographic locations.” He says that as customers drive to reduce training costs and the number of operators in their facilities, Nexus Controls has continued to adapt its software platforms to be easier to use and navigate.
“Our HMI screens have been designed to improve decision making speed and reduce unnecessary information for the operators.” He adds that as a global company, Nexus Controls is frequently requested to leverage new cybersecurity software platforms. “We can move faster because of our expansive, best-in-class, cybersecurity partner ecosystem. In most cases, we have already performed some sort of validation with new cybersecurity software platforms.”
Of course cybersecurity is often inextricably linked with the Cloud?
“Depending on the customer, cybersecurity can be top of mind when determining whether a cloud or on-premise solution fits the operation,” says Knight.
“Many customers are starting to become more comfortable with sharing information with an external server, and for those customers we can supply hardware that facilitates that data transfer as well as provide the necessary cybersecurity protection to do the transfer securely.
“For other customers who are not comfortable with the transmission of their data to the cloud, we can also provide on-premise solutions, such as our Nexus OTArmor industrial cybersecurity solution or our Nexus OnCore OptimumC data historian, that can handle data aggregation and analysis. We also support data transfer to other third-party data historians.”
Knight says that wireless technology “is a topic of conversation with customers who operate many disparate sites that need to regularly communicate, such as in upstream oil & gas”.
He explains that for many customers “the challenge isn’t so much in the hardware to perform the communication, but in the availability of the technology, whether it is via satellite or broadband communication”.
In these cases, Knight stresses that the Nexus OnCore Control System “can integrate with many wireless technologies”.
He adds that the Nexus OnCore Control System supports secure remote management, as well as a Managed Services offering to securely support remote working – critical in working-from-home environments and situations.
“In addition, we can fill critical, but often common, cybersecurity expertise gaps, through our Nexus OTArmor Managed Security and Incident Response services”.
Knight states that the Nexus OnCore Controls System “is by far the most popular control system platform due to its nextgeneration capabilities, its cost effectiveness, its intuitive design making it extremely easy to learn, deploy and use – and finally it is inexpensive to purchase”.
He adds that industrial cybersecurity “is a rare skill set and we believe we already are the premier industrial cybersecurity provider, enabling our customers to securely realize the benefits of digital transformation”.
This enviable position has come about, he says, because of “our deep knowledge of industrial machinery and our asset-agnostic approach towards cybersecurity, which allows us to scale the way our customers wish, protecting multi-site and plant wide”.
With developments in all of these technology trends, I wonder which of them are customers asking about the most?
“Remote connectivity has really come to the forefront,” says Knight. “With the global pandemic, customers are coming to us looking for solutions that help them maintain continuity of their operation using remote technology.
“We are fortunate to be in place where we can provide several solutions to help customers effectively utilise remote technology. This could be anything from secure user access to HMIs and control systems to remote diagnostics to assist with troubleshooting and maintenance.” He adds that customers are looking to Nexus Controls for solutions to “how to leverage plant data to drive improvements – and how to do it in a cyber-secure way”.
“For instance, if we give them access to operational data on their wireless tablet, what are we doing to make certain that data is safe and secure? So, data analytics with a cyber-secure wrapping is a big concern.”
Cybersecurity rose to the top of the news agenda in May when President Trump signed an executive order intended to boost protection for US essential services in case of a cyberattack that results in “catastrophic regional or national effects on public health or safety, economic security, or national security”.
Knight highlights that Nexus Controls has 12 years’ worth of comprehensive cybersecurity solutions” to handle the challenges that will come on the back of the executive order.
Those 12 years equate to three million hours of operational cybersecurity protection in oil & gas, renewables and power generation.
“We are well-equipped to help our customers’ security posture, achieve greater visibility and protection of critical assets, and support compliance with regulatory and internal cybersecurity policies.” He says the Nexus Controls’ cybersecurity approach “aligns with our customers’ industrial missions of safety first, zero unplanned downtime, and operational efficiency”.
“Many industrial applications require the highest levels of adherence to industry regulations. Our team of cybersecurity experts is well-versed in designing solutions that meet cybersecurity regulatory compliance standards across the globe.” And he adds that the company has a “secure-by-design philosophy” which “encompasses security strategies throughout every stage of the solution lifecycle”.
Knight also explains that Nexus Controls partners with top tier cybersecurity companies as resellers, a strategy he describes as vital.
“Industrial operations have long-term lifecycles measured in decades – very different from an IT lifecycele. Our cybersecurity solutions offer long-term dependablity, flexibility, configurability, for meaningful ROI and protection of critical assets over the many short-lived point solutions found on the market today.
“With this in mind, all of our partners are strategically chosen so that we provide the solutions required by our customers that have a long plant lifecycle in mind.” Knight says that the controls market “is in a state of technological evolution and in application development into diverse industry verticals, expanding from the traditional markets of power and oil & gas”.
On top of this, he forecasts that in coming years the controls market “will evolve into a more secure, interoperable, standardsbased architecture that will allow customers to choose the components that best meet their unique needs from across multiple vendors and integrate these components into one seamless ecosystem”.
In this new world, he stresses that control vendors “will need to focus on differentiation through continued ease of use as well as offering software and services that provide compelling value based on individual and aggregate analysis of customer generated data”.
He is also witnessing distinct trends in the aftermarket for controls. “The future aftermarket for controls is focused on empowering customers in whatever ways best meet their specific needs”.
For some customers, he explains, this means providing them with the tools and services to allow them to perform their own maintenance and lifecycle activities.
For others it means handling their maintenance and lifecycle activities for them, so that they can focus completely on the core competencies required for optimizing their production.
“At Nexus Controls, we aim to provide services to meet customers on both ends of this spectrum – as well as the many areas in between.”