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Energy sector wrestles with youth

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As the older generation of trained energy specialists approach retirement age, firms must look at attracting younger replacements. But, says MARTIN RICHARDS, Senior Director for Energy Industry Solutions, OpenText, that is not so easy with more enticing companies looking for the same talent.

The ‘Great Crew Change’ taking place in today’s energy sector creates numerous challenges. As an older generation of highly trained specialists approaches retirement age en masse, energy firms must attract and train large numbers of talented young replacements. That’s not easy when ‘hotter’ companies such as Facebook, Google and Uber want to recruit the same talent.

Forty years ago, running a nuclear power plant or exploring for oil and gas offered high-tech career appeal to many young engineers and PhDs. Today’s bright new graduates, though, have other cutting-edge options. So what’s an energy company to do when it faces the loss of many decades’ worth of knowledge and experience all at once?

One solution – digitalization – might not seem obvious at first. But by updating and digitalizing how they manage, store and share information, energy companies can preserve the knowledge of soon-to-be retirees and improve their ability to recruit a new generation of skilled employees. At the same time, such transformation can also help those organizations become more efficient, effective and ready for future change.

New ideas about data

While every business in the energy industry is unique, many have long relied on old-fashioned, paper-based documentation. In quite a few companies, this information is also distributed across various silos, with different teams or departments jealously guarding ‘their’ information from other groups. Such attitudes, however, are alien to today’s up-and-coming generation of professionals.

One story I heard recently clearly illustrates this divide: A senior engineer in his 50s recounted discussing a technical problem with a much younger co-worker, whose response was to promptly go to WhatsApp to ask former classmates for help. Within minutes, one of his friends had come back with an answer to the problem.

This is a far cry from how many energy companies are used to managing information. Up until recently, for instance, many firms employed teams of document controllers who were in charge of managing requests for records. If you needed a printed report or maintenance guide, you would turn over a written request to one of these controllers, who would then disappear into a maze of filing cabinets to retrieve the document.

That’s hardly an efficient system for a mobile, digital age, is it? So bringing in a new generation of employees who grew up with iPads, smartphones, tablets and WiFi will require companies to adopt new ways of working as well.

Preserving knowledge digitally

As they move into new digital working practices, energy firms must also work to preserve the knowledge of older employees approaching retirement. This means digitalizing large volumes of information from a wide array of sources – paper reports, books, memos, handwritten notes and more – and then bringing order to that information so it can be more easily searched, shared and kept up to date.

Technology can help with much of this. For example, advanced scanning devices and character recognition software can quickly and efficiently transform printed materials into digital data. Sometimes, though, hands-on human help is also needed.

Consider one company OpenText worked with that had acquired an oil platform from a large energy firm selling off aging assets. Before taking over, the company received all of the documentation it needed to operate the platform… in the form of 16 pallets of paper delivered to its parking lot. The business ended up having to employ a team of people from the original energy firm who understood how to make sense of those records.

Preserving old knowledge for a new digital era can be even more challenging in the nuclear energy sector, which has traditionally disaggregated critical information into multiple documents for security purposes. In many cases, one document won’t make sense unless it is read alongside several other related documents. It’s a system the older generation understands that won’t make sense to younger incoming employees.

Transformation in action

So how does a company make the transition from paper to digital?

OpenText has found the process is best managed in four stages. First, content must be brought under control. This means bringing information into a single, digital repository and eliminating silos. Along the way, files and metadata are standardized so content will be searchable, sharable and usable in a variety of formats.

The next step involves optimizing the newly digital content for accessibility. This requires adding advanced search capabilities, as well as security controls for sensitive documents, version control and support for mobile.

After that, additional changes are made to build in processes for content reviews, approvals and audit trails. This stage also involves enabling automatic notifications to be distributed whenever information is revised or updated.

Finally, in the last stage of transformation, content is integrated with other systems for operations, maintenance, project management and more. This process, for instance, could enable an employee reading an SAP work order on an iPad to also receive location-based information about where a particular piece of equipment is located and get temperature data to know whether the equipment in question is cool enough to be safely touched.

For one nuclear power provider that OpenText has worked with, such a staged transformation enabled the company to add built-in support for industry-standard regulatory compliance, making information management easier and more efficient for thousands of employees.

Building for the future

In addition to the dramatic generational shift in their workforces, many companies in the energy sector today are also confronting the need to replace aging infrastructure. Here, again, the right technology can help them accomplish this faster, more efficiently and more cost-effectively.

For example, one mining company in South America recently faced a difficult challenge: how to quickly bring online several new mines to replace those that were nearing depletion. It hadn’t developed a new mine in 20 years or so, which meant all of those past development processes had been paper-based and not designed for today’s needs and modern efficiency. To ensure faster results this time around, the company engaged OpenText to help it deploy a new system that provided hundreds of suppliers with centralized, online access to project information. By enabling orders, changes and other information to be managed digitally, this system allowed the company to reduce errors, improve communication and speed up every stage of new mine development.

Improvements like these not only help businesses move faster and become more efficient – they also make them more attractive to young employees who expect to work this way. Look, for example, at the utility sector, which is undergoing rapid change with the introduction of things like smart meters, rooftop solar and net metering. To enable their customers to manage such new services, utility companies are deploying new information technologies and advanced capabilities such as smart mobile apps and Big Data analytics. This will also help them recruit new generations of professionals to take over when the older generations hit retirement.

Conclusion

Managing change is always challenging and when changes are large and sweeping, there are plenty of opportunities to fall down and fail to meet those challenges. That’s especially the case in the energy sector, which has traditionally had a reputation of being resistant to change. Energy companies that are serious about successfully navigating the Great Crew Change will need to embrace new technologies and new processes, ideally with help from experienced partners who know how to manage and deliver transformation.

Those that can reinvent themselves in this way will be better positioned to deal with future challenges too. We’re already seeing new kinds of energy businesses emerging – smaller, more nimble businesses that are cloud-based digital natives from Day One. Legacy companies will have to adopt similar ways of thinking, working and managing information if they wish to remain competitive in the years ahead.

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Which IoT horse should you back?

The emerging IoT is evolving at a rapid pace with more companies entering the market. The development of new product and communication systems is likely to continue to grow over the next few years, after which we could begin to see a few dominant players emerge, says DARREN OXLEE, CTOf of Utility Systems.

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But in the interim, many companies face a dilemma because, in such a new industry, there are so many unknowns about its trajectory. With the variety of options available (particularly regarding the medium of communication), there’s the a question of which horse to back.

Many players also haven’t fully come to grips with the commercial models in IoT (specifically, how much it costs to run these systems).

Which communication protocol should you consider for your IoT application? Depends on what you’re looking for. Here’s a summary of the main low-power, wide area network (LPWAN) communications options that are currently available, along with their applicability:

SIGFOX 

SigFox has what is arguably the most traction in the LPWAN space, thanks to its successful marketing campaigns in Europe. It also has strong support from vendors including Texas Instruments, Silicon Labs, and Axom.

It’s a relatively simple technology, ultra-narrowband (100 Hz), and sends very small data (12 bytes) very slowly (300 bps). So it’s perfect for applications where systems need to send small, infrequent bursts of data. Its lack of downlink capabilities, however, could make it unsuitable for applications that require two-way communication.

LORA 

LoRaWAN is a standard governed by the LoRa Alliance. It’s not open because the underlying chipset is only available through Semtech – though this should change in future.

Its functionality is like SigFox: it’s primarily intended for uplink-only applications with multiple nodes, although downlink messages are possible. But unlike SigFox, LoRa uses multiple frequency channels and data rates with coded messages. These are less likely to interfere with one another, increasing the concentrator capacity.

RPMA 

Ingenu Technology Solutions has developed a proprietary technology called Random Phase Multiple Access (RPMA) in the 2.4 GHz band. Due to its architecture, it’s said to have a superior uplink and downlink capacity compared to other models.

It also claims to have better doppler, scheduling, and interference characteristics, as well as a better link budget of 177 dB compared to LoRa’s 157 dB and SigFox’s 149 dB. Plus, it operates in the 2.4 GHz spectrum, which is globally available for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so there are no regional architecture changes needed – unlike SigFox and LoRa.

LTE-M 

LTE-M (LTE Cat-M1) is a cellular technology that has gained traction in the United States and is specifically designed for IoT or machine‑to‑machine (M2M) communications.

It’s a low‑power wide‑area (LPWA) interface that connects IoT and M2M devices with medium data rate requirements (375 kb/s upload and download speeds in half duplex mode). It also enables longer battery lifecycles and greater in‑building range compared to standard cellular technologies like 2G, 3G, or LTE Cat 1.

Key features include:

·       Voice functionality via VoLTE

·       Full mobility and in‑vehicle hand‑over

·       Low power consumption

·       Extended in‑building range

NB-IOT 

Narrowband IoT (NB‑IoT or LTE Cat NB1) is part of the same 3GPP Release 13 standard3 that defined LTE Cat M1 – both are licensed as LPWAN technologies that work virtually anywhere. NB-IoT connects devices simply and efficiently on already established mobile networks and handles small amounts of infrequent two‑way data securely and reliably.

NB‑IoT is well suited for applications like gas and water meters through regular and small data transmissions, as network coverage is a key issue in smart metering rollouts. Meters also tend to be in difficult locations like cellars, deep underground, or in remote areas. NB‑IoT has excellent coverage and penetration to address this.

MY FORECAST

The LPWAN technology stack is fluid, so I foresee it evolving more over the coming years. During this time, I suspect that we’ll see:

1.     Different markets adopting different technologies based on factors like dominant technology players and local regulations

2.     The technologies diverging for a period and then converging with a few key players, which I think will be SigFox, LoRa, and the two LTE-based technologies

3.     A significant technological shift in 3-5 years, which will disrupt this space again

So, which horse should you back?

I don’t believe it’s prudent to pick a single technology now; lock-in could cause serious restrictions in the long-term. A modular, agile approach to implementing the correct communications mechanism for your requirements carries less risk.

The commercial model is also hugely important. The cellular and telecommunications companies will understandably want to maximise their returns and you’ll want to position yourself to share an equitable part of the revenue.

So: do your homework. And good luck!

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Ms Office hack attacks up 4X

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Exploits, software that takes advantage of a bug or vulnerability, for Microsoft Office in-the-wild hit the list of cyber headaches in Q1 2018. Overall, the number of users attacked with malicious Office documents rose more than four times compared with Q1 2017. In just three months, its share of exploits used in attacks grew to almost 50% – this is double the average share of exploits for Microsoft Office across 2017. These are the main findings from Kaspersky Lab’s Q1 IT threat evolution report.

Attacks based on exploits are considered to be very powerful, as they do not require any additional interactions with the user and can deliver their dangerous code discreetly. They are therefore widely used; both by cybercriminals looking for profit and by more sophisticated nation-backed state actors for their malicious purposes.

The first quarter of 2018 experienced a massive inflow of these exploits, targeting popular Microsoft Office software. According to Kaspersky Lab experts, this is likely to be the peak of a longer trend, as at least ten in-the-wild exploits for Microsoft Office software were identified in 2017-2018 – compared to two zero-day exploits for Adobe Flash player used in-the-wild during the same time period.

The share of the latter in the distribution of exploits used in attacks is decreasing as expected (accounting for slightly less than 3% in the first quarter) – Adobe and Microsoft have put a lot of effort into making it difficult to exploit Flash Player.

After cybercriminals find out about a vulnerability, they prepare a ready-to-go exploit. They then frequently use spear-phishing as the infection vector, compromising users and companies through emails with malicious attachments. Worse still, such spear-phishing attack vectors are usually discreet and very actively used in sophisticated targeted attacks – there were many examples of this in the last six months alone.

For instance, in late 2017, Kaspersky Lab’s advanced exploit prevention systems identified a new Adobe Flash zero-day exploit used in-the-wild against our customers. The exploit was delivered through a Microsoft Office document and the final payload was the latest version of FinSpy malware. Analysis of the payload enabled researchers to confidently link this attack to a sophisticated actor known as ‘BlackOasis’. The same month, Kaspersky Lab’s experts published a detailed analysis of СVE-2017-11826, a critical zero-day vulnerability used to launch targeted attacks in all versions of Microsoft Office. The exploit for this vulnerability is an RTF document containing a DOCX document that exploits СVE-2017-11826 in the Office Open XML parser. Finally, just a couple of days ago, information on Internet Explorer zero day CVE-2018-8174 was published. This vulnerability was also used in targeted attacks.

“The threat landscape in the first quarter again shows us that a lack of attention to patch management is one of the most significant cyber-dangers. While vendors usually issue patches for the vulnerabilities, users often can’t update their products in time, which results in waves of discreet and highly effective attacks once the vulnerabilities have been exposed to the broad cybercriminal community,” notes Alexander Liskin, security expert at Kaspersky Lab.

Other online threat statistics from the Q1, 2018 report include:

  • Kaspersky Lab solutions detected and repelled 796,806,112 malicious attacks from online resources located in 194 countries around the world.
  • 282,807,433 unique URLs were recognised as malicious by web antivirus components.
  • Attempted infections by malware that aims to steal money via online access to bank accounts were registered on 204,448 user computers.
  • Kaspersky Lab’s file antivirus detected a total of 187,597,494 unique malicious and potentially unwanted objects.
  • Kaspersky Lab mobile security products also detected:
    • 1,322,578 malicious installation packages.
    • 18,912 mobile banking Trojans (installation packages).

To reduce the risk of infection, users are advised to:

  • Keep the software installed on your PC up to date, and enable the auto-update feature if it is available.
  • Wherever possible, choose a software vendor that demonstrates a responsible approach to a vulnerability problem. Check if the software vendor has its own bug bounty program.

·         Use robust security solutions , which have special features to protect against exploits, such as Automatic Exploit Prevention.

·         Regularly run a system scan to check for possible infections and make sure you keep all software up to date.

  • Businesses should use a security solution that provides vulnerability, patch management and exploit prevention components, such as Kaspersky Endpoint Security for Business. The patch management feature automatically eliminates vulnerabilities and proactively patches them. The exploit prevention component monitors suspicious actions of applications and blocks malicious files executions.
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