IBM, Cisco, Microsoft Plan Green Cloud Cities

Does the future of energy-efficient, broadband-connected cities lie in the cloud? Cisco (s CSCO), IBM (s IBM) and Microsoft (s MSFT) certainly seem to think so. All three are experimenting with cloud-based computing to lessen the cost and complexity of building smart city IT infrastructure — and if they succeed, it could create green cloud cities in the future.

Take IBM’s “smarter cities” announcement this week, describing a software platform to integrate and manage city operations such as police, fire and emergency responders, along with modules to add water and sewer management and transportation and traffic planning to the mix.

While IBM is installing the technology within the IT framework of major cities like Washington, D.C., it’s also working with a few smaller cities to run the software over an IBM-managed cloud, Chris O’Connor, IBM VP of industry solutions, told me this week.

“Certain cities in the market will be highly attuned to doing customization,” such as New York City, Paris and other major cities, O’Connor said. “But the next 5,000 cities will want to put it in the cloud.”

After all, IT systems that help cities manage electricity, water, waste, traffic flows, municipal operations and city services — all the energy-using, real-world functions that make cities run — are expensive and hard to manage. Basing them in the cloud can ease adoption and leave the IT heavy lifting to the experts.

It also opens the door to scaling the platform to more and more cities running over the same cloud platform. While IBM hasn’t made its cloud-based smarter cities platform broadly available, O’Connor suggested this wouldn’t be too far in the future.

Cisco (s csco) is also turning to cloud computing for some of the connected city projects it has underway around the world. In the Netherlands, Cisco is running remote work centers over its cloud services platform, and in the South Korean city of Busan, it’s working with Korea Telecom on a multi-year project to deliver city services to mobile devices, all managed by the cloud.

Some of Cisco’s partners are busy preparing their technologies to run on its cloud platform as well. The list includes Control4, one of Cisco’s home energy management partners and equity investment targets, now doing work in the South Korean city of Incheon in another Cisco smart city project. (Execs from both Cisco and Control will speak at our Green:Net event on April 21 in San Francisco).

Control4 is developing its technology to run on Cisco’s cloud services delivery platform, Wim Elfrink, Cisco’s chief globalization officer and EVP, told me in an interview last week. While he wouldn’t provide more details about that work, he did say it’s part of an “ecosystem” of partners planning to become Cisco cloud-ready in the future.

Moving to the cloud could allow for some big economies of scale, Gordon Feller, Cisco’s director of urban innovations, noted in an interview last week. In the case of South Korea, the government is planning to move a host of IT operations and services to what’s becoming known as the “G-Cloud,” both to make it easier for government agencies to interoperate and add IT resources and to provide services like tax payment, business licensing and vehicle registration to citizens, he noted.

As they’re put in place, these platforms can be used to link up electric, gas and water meters, sewer and waste management systems, and other city services to run them more efficiently, he said. That’s not to mention the potential fuel and energy savings to come from better public transit, remote work capabilities and other services, he noted. Korea isn’t Cisco’s only target for such systems; it’s also working on projects in China, including the cities of Chongqing and Chengdu.

Yvon Le Roux, Cisco’s VP of public sector for European and emerging markets, suggested putting applications that are deeper in the smart grid (beyond the home) into the cloud is a possibility, too. “Smart grid is just another application, right?” he said in an interview last week. “It’s a sophisticated router, or product, that’s going to manage and optimize the grid. There’s no issue connecting it over the cloud.”

Microsoft, which provides utility-specific software and integration services, is also looking to the cloud to manage smart-energy, smart-city systems. In a project with French power giant Alstom, Microsoft plans to use cloud technologies to aggregate energy data from potentially destabilizing distributed power generation resources such as solar panels and wind turbines within a city context. (Microsoft’s Environmental Chief Strategist Rob Bernard will speak at our Green:Net event).

Moving a host of utility or government IT systems to the cloud does present challenges, of course, chief among them security and data privacy. Cloud-based platforms for managing real-world energy assets will have to ensure they’re able to provide all the control and protection that city governments will require before they become adopted on a broader scale. As they branch out into connecting city residents, they’ll have to ensure that data on individuals’ energy use and work habits are protected as well.

Then there’s the question of how these projects will deliver a return on investment. Indeed, while the green aspects of city networking systems take a lead role in public announcements about them, it’s the cost savings and efficiency gains that will drive whether or not they take off.

Those are some of the challenges these pilot projects will be tackling in the coming months, and perhaps years. Cisco’s Busan project, for one, has a hard deadline of delivering cloud-based services to city workers by 2012 and to citizens at large by 2014.

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Image courtesy of PDR via Creative Commons license.