Monitoring Hard-to-Reach Devices and Unique Protocols in Utility Networks

Monitoring Hard-to-Reach Devices and Unique Protocols in Utility Networks

To enable communications between components like intelligent electronic devices (IEDs), substations and remote terminal units (RTUs), electric utility environments in North America use very unique protocols, including DNP3, Modbus and IEC 61850. Because these protocols are proprietary, traditional IT monitoring tools can’t decode them. Without the ability to monitor traffic between control systems and field devices, utility cybersecurity and operations teams are left with major blind spots.

Complete Visibility for Electric Utilities Requires Going Beyond IP Traffic

While tapping into the network core provides visibility into traffic traversing the perimeter, crucial blind spots remain. Electric utilities increasingly rely on connected assets in the field—equipment with embedded sensors, switches, and more. These components also run on proprietary protocols, but often operate on proprietary wireless systems or legacy serial connections, versus modern IP networking.

Without the ability to capture serial communications and analyze that data, you’re blind to nearly 50% of utility OT infrastructure. Relying on core network traffic analysis alone also misses local communication confined within air gapped environments, like a substation.

Detecting Cyber Threats and Misconfigurations in Legacy OT Devices

Cyber-physical attacks often start by compromising vulnerable legacy components, and it’s entirely possible that backdoors could be planted in hard-to-reach devices, like isolated RTUs in substations. A compromised device could be weaponized via packet crafting, which may go undetected without proper network visibility and analysis.

Aside from cyber threats, misconfigurations in remote terminal units (RTUs) or intelligent electronic devices (IEDs) at electric utilities can lead to serious process issues which could delay response times to emerging issues like equipment failures or fluctuations in voltage/frequency. Similarly, misconfigured device addresses could result in scrambled, duplicated, or missing data.

Truly comprehensive visibility requires tapping into serial-based legacy protocols and wireless systems (licensed and unlicensed) in the field, along with IP-based ones, to paint a complete picture across OT, IoT and IT systems. Machine learning models can be applied to baseline “normal” traffic and pinpoint anomalous patterns indicative of emerging threats. With access to this traffic, you can extract asset intelligence, detect vulnerabilities or misconfigurations, and identify suspicious connections or lateral movement.

The Foundation for Effective OT Security in Electric Utilities

As utility infrastructure expands with more connected technologies, proactively closing visibility gaps is imperative. A cyberattack or misconfiguration in a single serial device could have catastrophic effects, but with the right OT network visibility, electric utilities can continue to embrace innovation that enables the smart grid of the future.

Tapping into legacy serial connections and obscure devices may seem difficult, but it is possible. With the right solution, it’s actually a lot simpler than it may first appear. With support for 200+ protocols, including DNP3, Modbus, and IEC 61850, Nozomi Networks delivers robust network visibility for utilities to provide situational awareness for all assets and their communications—the foundation for effective cybersecurity. The detailed OT telemetry in the Nozomi Networks platform equips your team to assess risks, detect threats early, respond quickly, harden infrastructure, and improve system resilience.

To see a list of our supported protocols, check out our protocol support data sheet below.