The Balancing Act: Network Security and Connectivity
By Whitney Kellett, CIO, Aqua America [NYSE:WTR]
In today’s ever-changing digital world, utility customers expect providers to be as connected as streaming television services and email accounts. But, like a lot of industrial businesses, utilities tend not to be the earliest adopters of new technology. New technologies promise easier and faster ways to accomplish important tasks, but taking the time to account for strengths, weaknesses, risks and longevity associated with each new offering is best-practice.
Every decision to upgrade or implement a new system needs to benefit employees and stakeholders, while ensuring the security of customer information and company financial data. Because of this, it is essential that CIOs continually work to redefine their corporate strategies to fully embrace updated or new technological offerings and ensure they are balancing this with their company investment and every potential security risk.
For many industrial and utility businesses, the technological trends being adopted are not on the cutting edge of development, but rather, they are important for information technology and operations technology systems. Cloud-based computing, the proliferation of mobile devices and the importance of cyber security are just a few key advancements that need to be carefully implemented in strategic plans. I encourage CIOs, and all tech leaders across all industries, to be proactive, strategic and forward-thinking for each technology decision.
While not a new concept, cloud-based computing has recently become more popular in the utility and industrial space. For many companies, the ability to store company and client information in a secure internet-based location creates a new, convenient way for employees to connect to and access data.
At its core, cloud computing presents security risks and many companies, Aqua included, were initially concerned with storing confidential and important company information on the cloud. As IT professionals learned more about the architecture of the cloud, how web-enabled services could be integrated into existing systems and how secure data would be stored, more companies began implementing or forecasting for cloud-based computing in their strategic plans.
"At the heart of all technology based decisions is the need to manage and protect company assets"
It can be argued that in today’s business landscape, cloud avoidance is a choice companies cannot afford to make. Many IT product development companies are investing the majority of their resources into the cloud, making it a more secure, up-to-date system. In fact, if a company is not in the process of integrating the cloud or does not plan to do so, they will soon be considered obsolete.
For companies like Aqua that are working to improve legacy systems and processes, it can be overwhelming to begin to transfer information and policies to the cloud. This process requires a strong strategic plan for product use and the migration of information. Technology leaders have an obligation to understand the impact the change in systems and processes will have on each section of the business and manage the effects it will have on the organization, employees and budgets. Aqua, like other regulated businesses, has finite capital available to invest in infrastructure improvements each year, and the responsibility to be fiscally responsible for our customers and shareholders, making the need for the strategy behind these decisions even more critical.
All our systems and the efforts behind them must support our really critical mission: to protect and provide Earth’s most essential resource.
Mobile devices and the ability to work seemingly from anywhere have become essential for the continued success and growth of many businesses. This increased mobility for employees creates the need to have access to corporate assets in the cloud.
At Aqua, we have over 1,600 employees and many working out in the field connecting to the network from tablets and similar mobile devices. From a logistical and networking perspective, Aqua’s senior leadership team made an investment to ensure field employees can use tablets for their day-to-day work and have access to a variety of applications and data they may need, including service orders and customer account information.
Like with cloud computing, even though tablets, smart phones and hybrid computer tablets have existed for quite some time they are now vital to complete work in our industry.
At the heart of all technology based decisions is the need to manage and protect company assets. Cyber security is of utmost importance as there are vulnerabilities, especially with the continued growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the internet working and connectivity of physical devices, smart devices, buildings, and other various electronics including meters and sensors.
Each point of connectivity, from email to connected network devices and even people walking through the front door, not only enables the exchange of data, but also represents a vulnerability and potential risk. Each connection needs to be protected to ensure confidential company and customer data remains secure. Once this is complete, the benefit of integrating a more connected digital infrastructure is the fact that it allows different groups of employees to effectively utilize data in real time. At Aqua, this means our field employees and corporate office employees can access information via the cloud and from mobile devices whenever necessary, providing better service and information to our customers.
As leaders in our organizations, specifically in technology, it is important we recognize and understand trends across various industries, especially our own. It is essential to continually redefine company strategy to account for new developments and to balance the new technologies with the investment needed and the risks they present. With this baseline, we’ll most effectively serve our customers, communities, employees, and shareholders.