University researchers test cyber-defense for nation's power grid

University researchers are testing whether a distributed computing system could be used to prevent a major blackout during a cyberattack on the nation's power grid.

Scientists from North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have built a prototype of a software-based system that would coordinate the activity of networked computers during an attack. The computers would be part of the infrastructure of control centers that collectively run the nation's power grid.

The complex electrical network is divided into sections that are as small as a single municipal area, such as New York City, and as large as the state of California.

Each section is managed by a single control center that typically has one large computer system that runs the controls necessary to keep power flowing smoothly.

If a control center went down suddenly in an attack, either physical or over the Internet, then it could cause severe disruptions to the operations of other centers, causing blackouts to spread across regions.

Centers today would find it extremely difficult to stop such a chain reaction, because their computer systems mostly operate autonomously, even though the portions of the grid they manage are interconnected.

To prevent such a calamity, the research team is testing a distributed computer system that could operate across centers. If one center went down, then the computational load managing its portion of the grid would automatically be distributed to the systems in other centers.

All of this could be done through software running across multiple virtual machines that form a cloud computing-type network, which would overlay the grid.

Such an interconnected system would have its costs.

"You have to have a very robust communication system," Aranya Chakrabortty, an assistant professor of electrical engineering who is leading the project from NCSU, said Friday.

In addition, new security mechanisms would have to be implemented to protect the distributed system, which would stretch across the entire power grid, Chakrabortty said.

The research team has built a model of the system and is testing it against cyberattacks generated from the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California.

The universities are part of the larger Smart Energy Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) team, which is working on other possible defenses against attacks aimed at the power grid.

Eventually, all the work from the initiative, comprised of researchers from academia, government and private industry, will be merged into a single grid-protection system.

"The plan is to merge and to come up with something completely integrated," Chakrabortty said.

The Smart Energy CPS team plans to deliver preliminary findings of its work in June at the SmartAmerica Expo in Washington, D.C.

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Tags cyberattackscritical infrastructure protectiondisaster recoveryapplicationsemergency preparednesssoftwarecritical infrastructure securityNorth Carolina State University

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