Q&A with Nicholas Ryan: Building the foundation for large-scale cyber assessments | News

Q&A with Nicholas Ryan: Building the foundation for large-scale cyber assessments |  News


Our energy systems are evolving rapidly, and we urgently need new ways to safely explore and protect their future. However, because energy systems are vital resources, we do not want to disrupt them. We need a secure environment where we can test threat scenarios and solutions without affecting the network.

A person wearing a rain jacket stands while walking in front of the mountain.
Nick Ryan, a cybersecurity researcher at NREL, hikes in Connemara National Park in Ireland.

To achieve this, the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has established the Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) cluster, which allows researchers and partners to study the interactions of energy systems with and rely on digital communication devices and networks.

During Cybersecurity Awareness Month, learn about Nicholas Ryan, a cybersecurity researcher at NREL, about his contributions to NREL’s Cyber ​​Domain and how it enables researchers to create entire power systems in a virtual world, opening up our ability to safely explore cyber vulnerabilities, test… Mitigation strategies. And new technologies to eliminate risks.

What is cyber domain?

Cyber ​​Domain is a set of simulation tools and capabilities to provide an environment that facilitates cyber security research. You can think of it as a sandbox that hosts toolkits that researchers can leverage to answer important research questions about critical infrastructure.

What makes NREL’s cyber range unique?

NREL’s cyber range is unique because it features a wide range of tools and capabilities, unlike other existing cyber ranges. These tools and capabilities include automated, multi-domain, cyber-physical visualizations and the ability to integrate devices, such as wind turbines, into our simulations. Using these capabilities, we can take a complex energy system and visualize it in a single view, allowing researchers to easily see the state of the entire system.

Another focus is on future distributed energy system challenges that exhibit cyber-physical impacts on a large scale – for example, as a result of a cyber attack. Additionally, NREL’s e-scope is supported by industry partnerships, which play a key role in transforming the applied research we do at the scope into market impact. The findings in our research can be implemented in the real world.

Building and scaling NREL cyberspace has been, and continues to be, a collaborative effort. What are you currently working on in the cyber domain?

Since I started, my primary focus has been adding capabilities to Phenix—an orchestration platform developed by Sandia National Laboratories that enables rapid deployment of large-scale systems—to automate specific components within experiments. I am writing a file processing and configuration automation program for this orchestration platform to convert information about the power system into a deployable simulation environment.

More specifically, my role was to support the building and scaling of a simulation library to support larger models. For example, you might have a power system model that represents an entire urban area – so you can use capabilities from the simulation library to represent the city, and then you can use the model as a sandbox to perform tests and evaluations.

The next push for the cyber domain is to do full automation. Instead of having to manually configure all the individual parts of a cyber-physical power system environment, you can enter configuration files, and simulations will be generated automatically. It’s great because it’s never been done before — at least not on this scale — so it’s groundbreaking stuff.

How is the simulation library used in NREL projects?

The simulation library is designed to be the information basis for the ARIES electronic collection. The simulation library creates, stores and manages information about assets that can be deployed in the cyber domain. It is essentially a database of knowledge about scale capabilities, which can be used to design and deploy our experiments for projects within NREL.

One project I’m working on looks at implementing cloud environments in energy systems and seeing how they behave and whether there are any cyber implications. We hope that the results of this project will help define or help provide guidance to industry partners on how best to implement cloud solutions in their environments. We can show them that we performed these experiments in the electronic range of NREL to prove certain situations.

Why is it important to evaluate energy systems in a virtual environment? How does this translate to the real world?

Because energy systems are critical resources, we don’t want to disrupt them. The biggest reason why it’s important to evaluate them in a virtual environment is that it provides us with a safe testing environment that we can use to test things in a repeatable way. If there is any disruption to these simulations, there will be no real-world impact.

Furthermore, because of this redundancy and the ability to model a wide range of energy systems in our simulations, these environments give researchers the means to support their work with the scientific method.

Cybersecurity for energy systems is essential. What are the challenges or opportunities of working in such a comprehensive specialty?

From my point of view, the biggest challenge is that what we are doing has never been done before. It’s very groundbreaking, and there are a lot of challenges that come with that. I think the biggest one is that it can sometimes be difficult to find supporting research simply because it doesn’t exist. As a software developer as well, software needs of this scale don’t exist in the industry yet. We can’t always leverage open source or industrial code. We must implement these tools from scratch, as they are groundbreaking in many ways.

How did you become interested in cybersecurity for energy systems? What brought you to NREL?

He has always been fascinated by cybersecurity. But since I started at NREL I have realized the importance of power systems and how important it is to protect them given the scale of the impact they can have if they are disabled. The big thing that led me to NREL was its mission and the impact of that mission on the real world. Traditionally, cybersecurity is applied to IT infrastructure. While this benefits these companies, applying cybersecurity to critical infrastructure like energy systems benefits everyone else. This is the aspect that sparked my interest and my passion for cybersecurity grew in this field.

What do you enjoy most about working on NREL’s e-band?

For me, it’s about the variety of work. I never thought I would do something like this when studying computer science. The nature of what I do is very interesting. I didn’t even know this space existed as a career, so being able to work on these simulations, scale these systems, represent thousands of machines, and do these huge, complex simulations was amazing. I think the eldest is working in an organization like NREL with the mission it holds. This has been the main driving force because of the real-life impact my work has had.

When people ask you what you do, what do you say?

My further goal is to provide these simulation environments that researchers can use to make the energy systems we use more resilient. The reason it is important is the impact it has if something goes wrong. Natural hazards and human threats that affect grid reliability have the potential to impact everyone because of how dependent we are on electricity. Our society is built on this, and it is an essential part of our daily lives, so if it is interrupted, it can have significant negative effects. Cybersecurity for energy systems is vital.

What do you do for fun outside of work?

When I’m not staring at screens all day, I love doing all the outdoor activities Colorado has to offer. I am very interested in mountain biking, this is probably my favorite sport. Outside of that, I enjoy hiking and camping, and when it gets snowier, I love skiing. Really anything that gets me outside and exercising.


Connecting to more than 20 MW of power system devices, the Cyber ​​Domain provides one of the most advanced simulation environments for assessing emerging threats, natural hazards and the impacts of power outages. Learn more about NREL’s ARIES electronic suite and its advanced research capabilities and applications.

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