Jeff Katz, CTO, Energy & Utilities, IBM [NYSE:IBM]
Some utility CIOs were early adopters when it came to cloud technology. Embracing the opportunity to transform business processes and solutions was a considered but appropriate decision, because it not only improved how problems were solved, but also the types of projects on which utility companies could refocus their energies. Rather than having to worry about day-to-day server and storage maintenance, they could now aim at taking on new tasks and assignments to better the business.
However, there are still some utilities that are unsure about cloud technology and what it means for their business. Cloud is not a technology that is tried because it is trendy; but is a technology that fits in the enterprise architecture because it works.
Utility companies that have a cloud strategy are providing better customer service and increasing operational efficiency. Cloud computing enables utilities to bring together various information technology systems to leverage data sharing, analysis, and interoperability for the benefit of customers.
There are areas where utility companies see success. From advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) to simulation emergencies to drone captured video, these are some of the applications that can be successfully been moved to the Cloud.
"Cloud is not a technology that is tried because it is trendy; but is a technology that fits in the enterprise architecture because it works"
Some utilities have chosen Cloud for smart meter communications, MDMS, and even billing. Since even medium size utility AMI projects span years, Cloud is a good way to expand with the meter deployment. After system testing is completed, the decision can be made about off-premises versus a Hybrid installation. Of course, even if the AMI system is owned hardware in a utility’s data center, by deferring the server and storage purchase until all is scaled in the Cloud, the utility can take advantage of the inevitably lower server and storage costs of the future.
Rationalizing and combining data centers during an acquisition can be difficult, yet savings on shared services such as IT are often part of the merger justification. By using a Cloud approach, whether private, hybrid, or public, depending on application, the standardization, scalability, flexibility of Cloud can provide a haven for a combined data center. Sometimes Cloud can be the aggregation point while the acquiring company pulls data from the acquired utility and works out data conversion and system integration.
Many times major systems, such as DMS or OMS, have a production system, a hot standby system, a development system, and a staging and test system. The DevOps and Test systems may be candidates for Cloud, especially if it is a Hybrid Cloud, where the electrical network data and SCADA interfaces are on the private Cloud portion.
For predictive maintenance and some advanced analytics, the more historical data that is available, the better the outcome. Cognitive (learning) systems can benefit from this too. Cloud based storage can be used to retain all of this data, even if an analytics strategy has yet to be developed. The retention of the data for future analytics and cognitive solutions should not be limited to disk drive storage capacity in the data center.
Most utilities have power system simulation software for planning. There can be occasions where a supercomputer-on-demand is needed, to run several short-term simulations during a crisis, in order to see the best scenario. Most utilities do not have this amount of reserve compute capacity. With a Cloud provider that has its own data network, the simulation software and data might be quickly loaded and run in these infrequent circumstances, without carrying the purchase price of a local system, or trying to arrange a local HPC center to handle the emergency.
The number of utilities looking at drone-mounted cameras for high-resolution still photos of field equipment, such as pipelines or towers, is growing rapidly. Cloud base storage for such images, which theoretically can be photographed by anyone since the equipment is outside, may be the solution. Often the data storage is temporary; once the images are analyzed to spot equipment problems, the bulk of the video streams and images are no longer needed. Some Cloud vendors provide specific solutions for video streams.
Utility companies that embrace cloud technologies are better prepared to respond to modern customer expectations, technological innovation, and new regulatory drivers. In fact, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners recently made a resolution encouraging state utilities to consider rate recovery for Cloud Computing. To thrive in the future, utilities will need to modernize and transform their business operations and a key element of this may be access to state-of-the-art commercial cloud computing services.