The water utilities getting ahead in the cloud

Smart water


Water utilities are becoming inceasingly comfortable with the security of cloud-based data solutions. Keith Hayward spoke with James Dunning, who chaired a session at the recent SWAN smart water networks forum annual conference.

James Dunning
James Dunning

‘The cloud is traditionally viewed as somewhere risky and out of control,’ comments James Dunning, CEO of Syrinix, who chaired the panel session on data confidence at the SWAN annual conference. That view can be countered by the fact that companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Google are spending vast sums on their cloud security, and that this can be set alongside the potential for a utility IT team to accidentally create a hole in the utility’s firewall. ‘When you look at it in those terms, …maybe the cloud is more secure than an IT team,’ he adds.

Dunning says the question was asked during the session as to who views utility IT teams as an enabler and who views them as a blocker. The split was 50:50. ‘I think it reflected that the whole discussion is in a state of flux at the moment,’ he says.

The issue is of particular relevance for Dunning as the network management solutions provided by his company are cloud-based. ‘Our model is based on cloud-based analytics. We take data to the cloud and analyse it and we provide data to the utility,’ he says. This approach is used by a growing number of other suppliers also. ‘What we are finding is that in the majority of these cases, the utilities are getting very comfortable with that,’ he adds.

‘Activities outside the firewall are so substantial, a secure means of bridging that firewall has to be found.’

This represents an important shift that is underway. Utilities have to date been able to put emphasis on the security of their own IT systems, but to allow growth of new data-generating activities and analytics separately outside of the core utility firewall. This, says Dunning, has been fine while the external activities have been small. ‘They are now getting to the stage where they are actually moving to become core parts of how the utility is operated, and so having these cloud-based solutions outside of the firewall isn’t acceptable any more,’ he says.

‘Equally, just saying you have got to change your model and bring it inside the firewall isn’t acceptable either,’ he continues. ‘Now the activities outside the firewall are so substantial that I think everyone is acknowledging that a secure means of bridging that firewall has to be found.’

The approach offers benefits too. ‘There is so much data that can be collected now, the utilities acknowledge that they can’t possibly handle it all,’ says Dunning. ‘Having suppliers manage that data actually relieves them of a significant burden.’ The industry’s view on how to deal with the cloud is therefore one that is evolving, or ‘maturing’, as Dunning puts it, but he does see that there has been a shift on the part of utilities. ‘I think we are through the “no it is too difficult, it’s too risky” point, and we are into the “how do we find an acceptable solution” point,’ he says.

Certainly utilities need to anticipate having to handle data on a far greater scale, if Dunning’s predictions are anything to go by. ‘In my view, the water sector is one of the last great untouched expanses of high resolution data management,’ he says. ‘At the moment, the monitoring of the water sector is quite coarse compared to the resolution used in other sectors.’ He sees a ‘huge opportunity’ for water in the advances of the internet of things and smart cities, especially in areas such as leakage. Utilities are currently blind to the causes of leakage, but solutions coming onto the market will allow high resolution monitoring to change this. ‘It can transform how they operate,’ he says.


  • Syrinix, SWAN Forum, smart water utilities