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Terna: Engineering the Future of Energy with DevOps

The seventh largest grid operator in the world is modernizing its IT infrastructure and using DevOps principles to meet new business challenges

Terna operates the Italian transmission grid for high and extra-high voltage electricity, with over 74,000 km of power lines, ensuring its safety, quality and cost-effectiveness over time, while balancing electricity demand and supply 24 hours a day. Through Terna Plus, the company is active in Chile, Peru, Brazil and Uruguay where it offers international operators access to the extensive technological knowledge it has consolidated over the years. 

Terna’s Head of IT Operations and Monitoring Fabio De Sanctis joins Delphix’s Senior Director of Customer Success Aoife O’Brien at the 2021 Data Company Conference 2021 to talk about how the business is modernizing its IT infrastructure and leveraging DevOps to meet new business challenges. Watch the video or read the full transcript below. 


 

Aoife O'Brien: I'd like to focus on two areas today: the modernization of Terna's IT infrastructure and the role DevOps has played in Terna's digital transformation. All of us know that there's a big energy transition happening at the moment as we move from fossil fuels to more renewable sources. You've been very well placed with two decades plus in the industry. What's your perspective on how that affects IT within Terna?

Fabio De Sanctis: I think these energy transformations have a deep impact on IT for Terna. Terna is one of the most relevant transmission system operators in Europe. We manage Italy's high voltage and extra voltage electrical grid with a central electrical operation and market operations. We are facing a huge transformation related to renewable energies. Focusing on the last years, in the past Terna managed and controlled the electrical grid with few small, very large power plants up and running. 

Now, we are going to reach thousands and thousands of very small generation plants. We are not only an operator, but we are also becoming a system enabler. We must guarantee at the same time, rock solid resiliency, performance security for core business applications and new functionality for new applications and new use cases, managing a huge amount of data. So IT services need to be more effective, interactive, powerful to support this changing scenario for transmission system operators and of course secure.

Aoife O'Brien: Absolutely. That brings me to my next question. You've sat on both sides of IT operations and development, and you're a big advocate of DevOps. What drove you to adopt, or what convinced you to adopt DevOps methodology within Terna? 

Fabio De Sanctis: We are early adopters of DevOps methodological approach. Everyday our business needs new applications and new services, so we have to cooperate with development teams for developing and putting in production new services, new applications, every day simply faster and better. I'm convinced that the best way to accelerate this process is a deep cooperation between development teams and IT operation specialists. 

DevOps in my opinion is not simply a question of software platforms, tools, processes, and technicalities. I think it is fundamentally a methodological approach that deeply involves persons. Everyday, we encourage data consumers and other data administrators to strictly cooperate together. Putting the same team and encouraging cooperation between developers, testers, analysts, data scientists. On the other side are the database administrators, system operators, IT operation specialists, et cetera. 

Aoife O'Brien: Fantastic. A lot of companies actually come to us and say, "We are now data companies." I'm interested in your insight into what the role data plays within electricity grid management. I'd like to get your perspective on what data challenges you have and how you manage those.

Fabio De Sanctis: I think it's crucial. Terna is a relevant European transmission system operator, and like other transmission system operators, Terna is becoming day by day more and more a data-driven company because electrical operations dealing with managing, controlling, defending the national electrical grid are becoming more and more digitalized. Our assets, power lines, and substations are remote controlled, remote managed, and digitalized more and more. Last but not least, all market operations are fully digitalized, not native digitalized. So data is fundamental to Terna’s business. During this transformation, the amount of data we have to manage is increasing day by day because the assets are digitalized. 

Think about a thousand kilometers of power lines with all their attributes, electrical attributes, mechanical attributes, temperature parameters. Then take all of the sub sessions with all the configurations, addresses, after all the mass market preparation, all this context and scenario produced day by day, a huge increasing amount of that.  From Terna’s point of view, and especially also from my IT operation manager point of view, data is not only about volume, data is also about quality because new use cases, new functionality, new scenarios produce new data types that have to manage with new protocols, new approaches, and applications must integrate. 

The ability to manage a huge amount of data with quality is crucial for a data-driven company, and Terna is becoming more and more a data-driven company.

Aoife O'Brien: Presumably within Terna, you've got very complex environments you have to manage. You've got mission critical systems you need to manage and do root cause analysis very quickly. You need to be predictable. You need to model scenarios and so forth. So all of that is driven by data, right?

Fabio De Sanctis: Yes. Root cause analysis, for example, is critical when IT operations have to face a problem or outages because we manage electrical access to the country. All the systems and applications we use to support our business are extremely critical. 

When we have to face the problem of outages, the capability to reach the root cause analysis can make the difference between a managed problem or a critical emergency or a disaster. Often problems and issues in a complex application of an ecosystem are related to data. 

In our interoperating application, I have to use the data. In this case, the ability to manage a virtual database and sophisticated file systems is crucial to support us and the development teams in finding what eventually caused problems. We measure our ability in minutes when we manage the most critical application for Terna. 

Aoife O'Brien: Fantastic. So it sounds like there was obviously a business requirement for a data management platform. Can you talk a bit about how implementing data management, Delphix has helped with your day-to-day IT operations?

Fabio De Sanctis: Yes. I talked about root cause analysis, but this is not the only use case. Of course, there are many different heterogeneous use cases. One of the first of course is related to application lifecycle. Here an interesting practical example is represented in my opinion in the way we have deep technical cooperation as your DevOps & Delphix. Because the capability to manage a life cycle of thousands of lines of code and database structures together at the same time with the same approach can speed up development of a new application for our development teams. And of course be more agile and create sophisticated products and services. Last but not least, also optimized cloud adoption because virtual databases are more portable, more agile than monolithic, physical ones. 

Aoife O'Brien: My next question actually is you have to comply with GDPR as well. So masking is key for Terna.

Fabio De Sanctis: Yes, of course. We have to respect GDPR, compliance rules, et cetera. We use DataOps and Delphix, especially in securing the development process because we use the capability of Delphix to mask data together with virtualization. Managing virtualization, complex file systems, and data masking at the same time when we produce new environments, new databases for tests, training, et cetera, is extremely relevant. Without this capability, it could be difficult for our development teams to test applications, run applications on fresh data coming from production, also in development environments. 

Aoife O'Brien: Fantastic. And so, given you've been on this journey, how have you seen the modernization of Terna's data infrastructure aligned with the company objectives? What have you been able to achieve with your program of activities?

Fabio De Sanctis: We used data operations, data virtualization to speed up the creation of innovative apps. We started to put together internal specialists and partnered with external specialists working together in virtual environments. We call it an innovation app, where data is protected and refreshed every day with secure profile access for different stakeholders, and the ability to create virtual copies in different heterogeneous scenarios. The ability to secure these environments, it's an enabler to put together different stakeholders, especially when these stakeholders are external to Terna. But in many cases, innovation means to cooperate with external stakeholders, and that operation can help companies in this kind of scenario. We used this technology when we created our new innovation apps.

In addition, I think that the modernization infrastructure is relevant in mission-critical operations, and Terna business deals with mission-critical operations. The ability to prevent outages with modern interoperating infrastructure, the ability to reach the root cause analysis when problems occur as soon as possible is relevant not only from the IT operation point of view, but also from the Terna business point of view in some cases, especially, of course, when related to the mission critical applications, controlling, defending, and managing the electrical grid, and supporting the day by day electrical market operations for Italy, and also when we integrate with the other markets, with the European electrical markets. And as I discussed before, it's relevant, the ability to speed time new services in production.

Last but not least, I think the role of IT infrastructure and data operation can be played, also, in a reporting context. In some cases, directly connecting reporting environments with production environments could generate sure problems related to the performance. When you have the ability to manage the database and create an image when you need, and where you need in training and development or testing environments, or in reporting environments without affecting the performance of the production environments, it is very helpful and it can help also the approach to a data-driven company

Aoife O'Brien: That's a really useful insight, to understand under the hood, basically, how you're able to support the business with the outages. The innovation hub is quite a good idea. I'm quite interested in facilitating external innovation as well as obviously app acceleration, and just resilience as well. 

Fabio De Sanctis: We are working with this new company, in some cases, startup companies, exactly using our innovation apps because this company can share with us their competencies and their new approach. To be practically useful for Terna, they should be able to work with new approaches, but on our own data, historical data, production data. The end data for Terna is extremely relevant, and extremely critical, especially from a cyber security point of view.

Aoife O'Brien: Yeah, that's fantastic. You've gone on quite a journey as a team. What next? Do you continue to innovate? Do you rest on your laurels? What's the plan?

Fabio De Sanctis: Of course, Aoife. The next is continued improvement and continuous innovation. We are planning to complete our DevOps and DataOps journey with AIOps. I am convinced that AIOps integrated with DevOps, DataOps, and other IT operation tools could be in the future. I hope in the future it will be extremely helpful to support IT operations in being more proactive and of course, in some cases, to be more reactive. We have to face this root cause analysis. We are developing this strategy in a hybrid cloud context because Terna manages critical applications. Some of these core critical applications due to cyber security reasons, restrictions, et cetera, must do continuous running on-premises environments. We are balancing this strategy when approaching the focus on hybrid cloud environments. We are very focused on using all these approaches with full deep automation. We try to automate as much as possible all our activities, daily operations, and so on. So AIOps, automation, hybrid cloud with DevOps and data is next, I hope.

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