The smart grid according to Cisco

Cisco's Marthin De Beer at Green:Net 2011

As I sat in a Cisco TelePresence room for Cisco’s energy analyst briefing, I was thinking about two things. First, how glad I was to be able to use TelePresence so I didn’t have to spend a day in airports and airplanes. Second, how I would possibly find a single, simple theme for the many announcements and implications embedded within Cisco’s two-hour session.

I finally gave up on the idea of a simple summary. Instead, I’ve listed below the nine points I found most important.

1). Cisco is IT and OT. By virtue of its networking and back office gear, Cisco is in place at 85 percent of the world’s utilities. Now they are moving out from their information technology (IT) stronghold. They seek to become every bit as adept at operational technology (OT) and the peculiarities of power systems. They’ve hired some of the world’s best minds, including some of the best power engineering minds. Two years ago, I wasn’t sure they could adapt to OT. Now I’m convinced they’ll not only adapt, they’ll advance the cause.

2). Cisco is in the communications business now. I haven’t yet figured out the boundaries, but I do know that Cisco is pushing further into field area networks (FANs) than I had expected. When discussing their work at BC Hydro, they said that Itron was doing the meters and the meter data management, while Cisco was handling the FAN. Cisco also said that its other metering partners had decided to step away from communications and focus on metrology and data management. I do not expect Cisco to build the communications modules inside the meters, but it looks like they’ll do much of the rest. Stay tuned for clarifications as I uncover more.

3). Cisco may have solved the hybrid network issue. Most utilities operate with a half-dozen different communications systems, some dating back 20 years. Cisco is proposing a two-tiered architecture for its field area network. Floating above is a “services canopy” to host myriad services from Cisco and its partners. At the lower level, it connects to multiple “purpose built networks for things such as electric vehicles, AMI, solar PV and so on. In this fashion, multiple networks are managed in one place and gain the benefits of sophisticated security, management and interoperability.

4). Cisco is issuing its own reference architecture. Called GridBlocks, it will both complement and compete with similar efforts from Accenture, IBM and Microsoft (s MSFT). At first glance, the Cisco version seems to be more advanced on the OT side – more sophisticated about ways to modify IT networking for the peculiar needs and challenges of power networks.

5). Cisco’s architecture emphasizes a core networking platform as a necessary foundation. Drill into IBM’s architecture and you’ll find it leans on IBM services and servers. The Microsoft architecture implies Microsoft software as the foundation. No surprise, then, that Cisco’s mantra is “the network is the platform.” I believe this is a message that will resonate with executives who want to move away from today’s collection of standalone apps towards an enterprise network that can be reused over and over again for new services.

Cisco’s key message: we will build you a multi-service field area network that you can leverage and build upon for years to come. Other vendors – Sensus, Silver Spring Networks, Tropos – tell a similar story, but none with as much weight behind it.

6). Cisco will provide business and policy “architectures” as well. Cisco is working harder than any other organization I know to uncover and document new business models that justify and exploit the new technology. I expect them to have business model template soon, followed by policy frameworks.

7). Cisco is tackling regulatory blockers head on. Smart grid sales momentum is slowing . . . but not because of technology blockers. Instead, it is regulation that is holding the industry back. Not content just to complain, Cisco is actively campaigning to change minds. If successful, we will all owe a debt to IBM and Cisco, the two companies doing the most to enlarge the pie for everyone by educating policymakers and regulators.

8). Cisco is engaging at the highest levels. Many of their conversations (and even some of their paid consultations) are with utility CEOs, top policymakers and energy ministers.

9). Cisco is investing heavily in R&D. IBM has always been my smart grid research hero, since it invested more (and sooner) than any other company. Cisco is now pushing hard into the smart grid space and coming up with clever new approaches. For instance, they uncovered a money-saving way to send large batches of synchrophasor data continent-wide using a variation of techniques used for video on other networks. But Cisco is not just researching new technology. They’re also investigating new business models and new policy models with help from leading universities and research institutions.

At first blush I think it is a step forward. And a welcome one, given that the stimulus surge has died down and the industry is searching for a spark. Cisco is demonstrating a level of commitment, confidence and strength that should be reassuring to skittish utilities. Your take?

Jesse Berst is the founder and chief analyst of Smart Grid He consults to smart grid companies seeking market entry advice and M&A advisory. A frequent keynoter at industry events in the US and abroad, he also serves on the Advisory Council of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Energy & Environment directorate.

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