Smart grid tutorial: What IT managers should know

This smart grid tutorial explains what enterprise IT managers should know about the technology and how it will be applied to your business's wide area network (WAN).

This smart grid tutorial explains what enterprise IT managers should know about the technology and how it will be applied to your business's wide area network (WAN).

What is a smart grid? 

A smart grid is an energy grid that uses Internet technologies to enable bi-directional communication, coordination and control. The vision of a smart grid starts with overlaying an information network, increasingly based on IP, onto connecting elements of the existing electric grid. In the long term, it will encompass re-architecting the generation and distribution of energy to make the energy grid more decentralized, resilient, secure and responsive to consumer demand and utility supply.

The smart grid is architecturally similar to the Internet, in that it is hierarchical and has clear points of demarcation. Energy utilities run the generation and interstate links of the grid, equivalent to an ISP's backbone. Within a metro area or neighborhood, local utilities run a neighborhood area network (NAN), equivalent to a metropolitan area network (MAN). The smart grid reaches out to individual homes and businesses through the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), which is like a local ISP's DSL network -- the last mile to the "smart meter." Inside a building or home, consumers and businesses will run a home area network (HAN) or building automation system (BAS), which is the smart grid equivalent of a LAN. The AMI smart meter also acts as the Network Termination Point or ingress router, a demarcation between the utility's network and the HAN or BAS.

The interface between your building automation network and the utility feed will be intelligent. This brings up tremendous opportunities for automation as well as severe management and security challenges.

Smart grid tutorial tip #1: Understand why businesses should care about the smart grid 

An expansive vision of smart grids connects businesses with flows of information about power supply, pricing and demand. By providing businesses with near-real-time pricing information, smart grids are expected to reduce energy costs for consumers and allow them to make intelligent and automatic choices about when to run certain devices.

A key trend in this space is the rapid move toward IP-based solutions for smart grid and building automation. Standardization is occurring at three layers in the protocol stack:

As the smart grid coalesces into a coherent protocol stack, the common element is the rapid adoption of IP in the network layer. The adoption of IP also drives convergence between building automation and IT in general, at a technological and organizational level.

Smart grid tutorial tip #2: Understand what IT managers should know about the smart grid 

The introduction of IP coincides with the merging of facilities and IT organizations. Companies are adding automation to buildings, and the resulting networks are increasingly run by the IT department. The building automation network is rapidly becoming a network-based application running over a converged LAN, much as voice networks started converging onto data networks a decade ago. In short, building automation will be an application that you must support on your network in the future. As with voice, this new network application will present unique management, Quality of Service (QoS) and security issues.

For example, building automation directly affects the physical space in our offices, creating unique management challenges, and systems must be protected from unauthorized access to a building or room. But even without malicious interference, we need to ensure that future building automation systems are as reliable as current mechanical systems. A "smart" light switch should turn on a light instantly and every time, just as a voice over IP (VoIP) phone should deliver a dial tone, instantly and every time. The lesson of VoIP was that mechanical systems are inherently more reliable, and it's not simple to achieve the same level of resilience and quality with a computerized system.

The smart grid will provide near-real-time pricing updates and statistics about your overall energy use. Building automation will allow you to control skylight shading, window blinds, HVAC, lights, vents and even micro-generation plants such as solar panels, fuel cells and diesel generators. This could allow you to adjust your energy consumption and local generation patterns in response to pricing and also hold out the possibility that organizations will be able to sell energy back to the grid. Companies could also get forewarning of impending energy quality issues (such as brownouts, spikes, supply shortages and blackouts) and adjust the usage or distribution of energy to prioritize critical systems or disconnect spike-sensitive devices.

Managing and securing this new network will require new skills, new hardware and new software. It will also require new types of firewalls, denial-of-service protections and security policies.

As explained in this smart grid tutorial, whether you work in a utility, a large enterprise or a small office, the smart grid will extend into your network, bringing new opportunities and new challenges. To prepare your business for the smart grid, you must start with organizational convergence between IT and facilities, followed by data convergence between IT networks and building automation systems.

Andreas AntonopoulosAbout the author: Andreas Antonopoulos, Sr. vice president and founding partner, develops and manages research projects, conducts strategic seminars and advises key clients at Nemertes Research. For the past 16 years, he has advised a range of global industries on emerging technologies and trends. He is an early pioneer who saw the potential of the Internet in 1988. He became an expert in the area of computer security while the field was still in its infancy. Andreas is also an early pioneer in the open source software space. Before Nemertes, he was the security practice director at ThruPoint Inc. and security practice lead at Greenwich Technology Partners.

This was first published in May 2010

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