4 Reasons the “Smart” Grid is Dumb

Disclaimer – These are my opinions and mine alone. They do not represent the views of my employer or any organization I am a part of.

I work heavily with “Smart” technologies: in the energy and utilities sector, in the manufacturing sector, and in telemetry covering retail and a few other areas. Over the last few years my work in Smart Grid has been fairly extensive. If you don’t know already “Smart Grid” basically means advanced telemetry built into every segment of the energy grid (though often smart meter and smart grid are actually different things; to most people smart meter and smart grid are the same). In my time implementing and consulting in this area I’ve come to see that there are a few really dumb things about the smart grid.

1) Lack of true standards at almost every level – Technology standards are what make the world interoperable. Ever send a text message or use the Internet or make a call from your mobile? That’s because standards allow devices and equipment from many vendors to work together – in two of those examples those standards are from the GSM Association. It is this interoperability that provides long term viability for the overall market: for the vendors, for the providers, and users. There are very few standards in the Smart Grid arena and there is almost no equipment interoperability. The really bad part here is that Smart Meters aren’t that different from the rest of the Internet of Things (IoT) and should be sharing standards with other parts of the IoT ecosystem.

2) No cloud first implementation strategy – None of the major vendors in the area are pursuing a cloud first strategy. From a technology standpoint most of this twenty first century infrastructure is being solved with late twentieth century architecture. There is a lot of expensive on premise technology that would feel right at home in the late 1990s. Cloud is important for valid reasons on both ends of the utility spectrum: small and large. Small utilities require a cost effective solution to implement this technology and realize the benefits. They cannot afford expensive highly available platforms and their small load factors don’t require it, yet the industry at large only offers them expensive on premise solutions that are overkill for most. Large utilities face another problem that a cloud first strategy would solve: scale. A large utility is going to have millions of meters and they will be providing telemetry at timeframes as short as 15 minutes. This is going to create a lot of data. Let’s look at an example:
5 million meters x 96 readings per day (i.e. 4×24) = 480,000,000 readings

This is just meters! Telemetry on the distribution side could actually be even larger as the readings are likely to be more frequent. The result: Some seriously Big Data (another blog on that shortly). This load from the meters alone would break down to 5555 readings per second on average 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Although that number is not that big, these events are likely to come in huge bursts. The software and platforms being selected to handle this load are not up to the task on either the messaging (delivery) or data (processing / storage) sides of this challenge. Many vendors and their relational / legacy data platforms think this will scale just fine – throw more hardware at it. It also allows them to sell more licenses and hardware. Unfortunately it just won’t work.

3) Lack of publish subscribe architectures – Building on issue 2 there is the very serious and technical aspect of architecture to be addressed. To be sure we’re early in this Smart Grid game, but most of the solutions so far are trying to use web services at best and sometimes just batch processing to handle this data. This is a true travesty that I think may be the result of some insular group think. Even when web services are used they often don’t incorporate WS-* standards and almost always rely on polling, which also doesn’t scale. The environment that is ultimately developed ends up being an archipelago of services and data that do not build broad scale extensibility into their design. Most of these architectures end up causing load and scale problems so the vendors and users end up falling back on batch processing. This greatly diminishes the value of Smart data as it arrives with a great delay that stops it from being used for real time processing scenarios – which promise to provide the greatest innovation in the arena. Ultimately Smart systems need true publish subscribe capabilities built into their core to provide scale and extensibility. This is the only way to facilitate the development and addition of new components and capabilities without reengineering an expensive and possibly brittle implementation. But what sort of features and capabilities would require this architecture? Glad you asked! Perhaps things like real time analytics to provide predictive failure, demand shifts, weather patterns. Like the Internet, it is not so much what we have thought of that will make Smart systems so successful, but what we will think of once a solid platform is in place. Publish subscribe is the key to extending these platforms to unlock their true value in the future – ideally with standardized protocols that create an open ecosystem.

4) Heavy vendor lock-in – This last point is really a culmination of all the others. Vendors produce their own parts of this Smart ecosystem with little thought of the larger environment and with a desire to protect revenue with a relatively short focus. This manifests itself in single vendor meter networks, closed platforms, and limited extensibility. I know we’re all in business to make money, but if the ecosystem isn’t healthy and providing choice and competition then this money will be short lived for “Smart” as much of the value will be difficult to realize and innovation will be slowed. This is still early in the technology, so I think this will change as the industry matures and vendors realize that they can all have slices of a bigger pie if they embrace interoperability.

The good news is that there is hope. We are very early in the creation of the Smart ecosystem and some participants are starting to take notice, much like how mobile operators did in the past. Standards like AMQP are providing wire level interoperability for a publish subscribe architecture that is vendor agnostic and free to use. Some utilities are starting to demand support for robust open protocols. I have particularly seen this in European utilities where I believe there may be more historic precedent for interoperability. Some members of this community are starting to look beyond the Utilities sector for inspiration and advice from other industries that have faced these exact challenges in the past like telecommunications, financial services, and banking. All of these thing bode well and if embraced will stop making the Smart Grid so dumb. It will be interesting to see.

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About danrosanova
I am a Senior Program Manager for Messaging at Microsoft covering Service Bus: Messaging, Relay, and Event Hubs. I have a long history in distributed computing on a variety of platforms and have focused on large scale messaging and middleware implementations from inception to implementation. I was a five time Microsoft MVP before joining Microsoft and author of the book Microsoft BizTalk Server 2010 Patterns.

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