IEC 61850 explained

IEC 61850: A Comprehensive Guide to Secure Industrial Communication

5 min read Β· Dec. 6, 2023
Table of contents


In the realm of industrial communication systems, ensuring secure and reliable data exchange is of paramount importance. One such standard that addresses this need is IEC 61850. Developed by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), IEC 61850 is a widely adopted standard for the design and implementation of communication networks in power substations and other industrial Automation domains.

What is IEC 61850?

IEC 61850 is a set of international standards that define the communication protocols and data models for the exchange of real-time information in the field of power systems Automation. It provides a comprehensive framework for the interoperability of devices and systems used in the generation, transmission, and distribution of electrical energy.

History and Background

The development of IEC 61850 began in the late 1990s with the aim of replacing the traditional analog and proprietary digital communication systems in substations with a standardized and future-proof solution. The standard was first published in 2004 and has since undergone several revisions to address emerging technological advancements and security concerns.

Key Concepts and Architecture

IEC 61850 introduces a service-oriented architecture for power system communication. It is based on the concept of the "substation configuration language" (SCL), which defines the structure and behavior of devices within a substation. The architecture comprises several key components, including:

  1. Intelligent Electronic Devices (IEDs): These are the devices responsible for Monitoring, control, and protection within a substation. IEDs communicate with each other using the standardized protocols defined by IEC 61850.

  2. Communication Networks: IEC 61850 supports various communication networks, including Ethernet, fiber optics, and wireless technologies. These networks facilitate the exchange of data between IEDs and control centers.

  3. Substation Automation System (SAS): The SAS encompasses all the devices, software, and communication infrastructure within a substation. It enables centralized Monitoring, control, and management of the substation's equipment.

  4. Data Models: IEC 61850 defines a standardized set of data models that represent the information exchanged between IEDs. These models ensure consistent interpretation and seamless interoperability across different devices and vendors.

Use Cases and Applications

IEC 61850 finds extensive use in the power utility sector and offers numerous benefits in terms of communication reliability, interoperability, and system management. Some notable use cases of IEC 61850 include:

  1. Substation Automation: IEC 61850 enables the automation of power substations, allowing for real-time monitoring, control, and protection of equipment. It improves system reliability, reduces maintenance costs, and enhances situational awareness.

  2. Smart Grids: With the increasing adoption of smart grid technologies, IEC 61850 plays a crucial role in facilitating communication between various components of the grid, such as smart meters, distribution automation devices, and renewable energy sources.

  3. Distributed Energy Resources: IEC 61850 supports the integration and control of distributed energy resources, including solar panels, wind turbines, and energy storage systems. It enables efficient management and coordination of these resources within the power grid.

  4. Cybersecurity: While not a direct use case, IEC 61850 also addresses the cybersecurity concerns associated with Industrial control systems. It provides guidelines and mechanisms to secure communication channels, authenticate devices, and protect against cyber threats.

InfoSec and Cybersecurity Considerations

In the context of InfoSec and Cybersecurity, IEC 61850 presents both challenges and opportunities. As Industrial systems become increasingly interconnected, it is crucial to ensure the security and integrity of communication networks and devices. Some key factors to consider include:

  1. Secure Communication: IEC 61850 incorporates security measures to protect communication channels from unauthorized access and data tampering. It utilizes Encryption, authentication, and access control mechanisms to ensure the confidentiality and integrity of transmitted data.

  2. Device Authentication: With the proliferation of interconnected devices, it is essential to establish trust and verify the identity of devices within the network. IEC 61850 provides mechanisms for device authentication, preventing unauthorized devices from accessing critical infrastructure.

  3. Network Segmentation: To mitigate the impact of a potential cyber attack, network segmentation is vital. By dividing the network into isolated segments, the spread of an attack can be limited, reducing the potential damage and enabling effective Incident response.

  4. Security Monitoring and Incident Response: Implementing robust security monitoring and incident response procedures is essential to detect and respond to potential cyber threats promptly. Intrusion detection systems, log analysis, and real-time monitoring can help identify and mitigate security incidents.

Industry Relevance and Career Aspects

IEC 61850 has gained significant traction in the power utility sector, becoming a de facto standard for communication in substations. As a result, there is a growing demand for professionals with expertise in IEC 61850 and its associated security considerations. Career opportunities in this field include:

  1. IEC 61850 Engineer: These professionals specialize in the design, implementation, and maintenance of communication networks and systems based on IEC 61850. They ensure Compliance with the standard's requirements and address security concerns.

  2. Cybersecurity Analyst: With the increasing importance of securing critical infrastructure, cybersecurity analysts play a vital role in identifying Vulnerabilities, implementing security measures, and conducting risk assessments within IEC 61850-based systems.

  3. System Integrator: System integrators focus on integrating various components and technologies within the power utility sector. They play a crucial role in ensuring the seamless interoperability of devices and systems based on IEC 61850.

Standards and Best Practices

To ensure the effective implementation and secure operation of IEC 61850-based systems, adherence to relevant standards and best practices is crucial. Some notable references include:

  1. IEC 62351: This standard provides security requirements and guidelines for power system communication protocols, including IEC 61850. It covers topics such as authentication, access control, and data integrity.

  2. NERC CIP: The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) standards outline cybersecurity requirements for the electric power industry. Compliance with these standards ensures the protection of critical infrastructure, including IEC 61850-based systems.

  3. IEC 62443: The IEC 62443 series of standards focuses on the security of industrial automation and control systems. It provides a comprehensive framework for assessing and mitigating cybersecurity risks in IEC 61850 deployments.


IEC 61850 has revolutionized the field of power system communication, enabling efficient and secure data exchange in substations and industrial automation domains. By providing a standardized framework, IEC 61850 promotes interoperability, enhances system reliability, and addresses cybersecurity concerns. As the power utility sector continues to evolve, professionals with expertise in IEC 61850 and its associated security considerations will play a vital role in ensuring the secure and reliable operation of critical infrastructure.

References: - IEC 61850 - International Electrotechnical Commission - IEC 61850 - Wikipedia - IEC 62351 - International Electrotechnical Commission - NERC CIP Standards - IEC 62443 - International Electrotechnical Commission

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