Posted by: nialljmcshane | April 26, 2010

The case for Standardization in Smart Grid Implementation

Everywhere I go in my job search, I hear the same mantras:  The job market has changed.  Its not what you know, its who you know. You have to manage your personal brand.  Its important to differentiate yourself from the crowd.   Well, with those words of wisdom in mind, I have decided that it is time for me to start taking advantage of the wonderful world of Internet 2.0 and social media to put myself out there and showcase some of the research and analysis that has been part of my job search up to this point.

My chosen direction at this time is to enter the smart grid technology sector and so I will use this blog to record some of what I am learning as I engage in the search for new opportunities in this fascinating field.

Why smart grid you ask?  Well, the first thing that attracted me to this field was the realization that it has much in common with the field where I have been working for the past 10 years – cellular telecoms and, more specifically, network management of cellular networks.

There are many diverse aspects to the smart grid but one of the most intriguing is the application of intelligence to the transmission and distribution grid itself, all the way from the long distance transmission lines, to the local substations, switches, reclosers, distribution lines and ultimately the smart meters that are being installed in large numbers around the world right now.  The upgrade of the grid is not so much in the transmission and distribution equipment itself which, as many in the industry are quick to point out, already includes significant intelligence, but rather in the overlaying of an intelligent network that aggregates data from across the grid to enable the utilities to better manage the transmission and distribution functions, localize and isolate faults and integrate increasing amounts of intermittent renewable power sources while preserving the stability and reliability of the grid.

So what’s the connection to cellular networks?  There are several:  The most obvious is the presence of numerous suppliers in the area of automated metering infrastructure (AMI) who are using either commercial cellular networks or various standard or proprietary versions of cellular and mesh networking technologies to aggregate meter data for backhaul to the utilities for billing and data analysis purposes.  Beyond that obvious connection however, there are significant opportunities for reuse of lessons learned in the telecom sector within the smart grid domain, especially in the area of network management.

The TMN model is widely used in the telecom industry.  This model, created by the ITU in 1985 defines four layers and five functional areas associated with the management of a network.  Starting from the bottom, the four layers are:

  • Element Management – which addresses the management of individual network elements.  This layer is often vendor specific and may contain significant proprietary data and capabilities.
  • Network Management – which addresses the coordination of resources and functions across heterogeneous network elements.
  • Service Management – which deals with the management of end-to-end services that are implemented on top of the physical connectivity provided by the network.
  • Business Management – which handles the business administration of the services that the network provides.

The five functional areas that are present in each of the layers are collectively known by the acronym FCAPS.  These are:

  • Fault Management – which provides for the identification, isolation, reporting and resolution of faults occurring within the network.
  • Configuration Management – which deals with the setting of variable parameters that govern the status and capabilities of the network elements, the provided services etc.
  • Accounting Management – which handles the collection and aggregation of data required for billing of services.
  • Performance Management – which is involved in the collection and aggregation of raw data describing the operational behavior of the network, network loads, response times etc for the purpose of capacity planning and network optimization.
  • Security Management – which implements the necessary controls for authentication and authorization of user access to the network, its services and the business data that supports, and is derived from, the network.

The creation of this model has forced an evolution in the telecom world for standardization not just at the level of protocols but in terms of the logical data that is transferred over those protocols and the system behaviors that can be affected by the messages that are transmitted.  By looking at the interface points between the layers and the functional areas within the model, and analyzing the data needs of the services and business use cases that must be executed, it has been possible to define common data models, common behaviors etc that all vendors must agree to conform to.  The 3GPP and other standard bodies have created standardized Network Resource Models that define the common managed objects and associated data that each logical entity in the network must contain as well as Integration Reference Points (IRPs) that define the operations that can be performed on those objects.  Of course, there must always be room for innovation and product differentiation and this is accomplished through a combination of mandatory and optional methods and data elements within the model.

Unfortunately much of this standardization came into place in the telecom world after the telecom service providers had already deployed substantial infrastructure and implemented point-to-point integrations to mediate vendor specific solutions to provide a degree of capability for homogeneous network operations but at significant cost.  Today, for example the vision of a truly vendor agnostic network management layer is severely limited with most network management layer products operating only in the fault, accounting and performance management space due to substantial proprietary complexity in the configuration and security functional areas.

This same issue of inter-operability will be critical to the smart grid as it moves out of the realm of isolated pilot programs and demonstration projects to a more ubiquitous presence. As in the case of cellular networks (or any networks), there are going to be a wide variety of equipment providers involved in the smart grid.  Within an individual service area, the utility may choose to work with multiple vendors in order to mitigate both technical and commercial risk.  Certainly across different service areas, we will see the emergence of an ecosystem of vendors, technologies and capabilities.  In order to maximize the value of the smart grid, it will be necessary to enable the utilities to have a homogeneous view of this heterogeneous network.  The TMN model (or a similar model tailored to the needs of the utility industry) will provide a framework for such standardization to occur. Some of the utility companies are already very aware of these issues and are working with EPRI and NIST and others to put the necessary frameworks in place but I believe that there is a huge opportunity to leverage the decades long experience of the telecom industry to help ensure that the necessary standards can be put in place quickly in order to precede the large scale deployment of smart grid infrastructure and ensure the maximum inter-operability for this critical new technology.

April 27 – Update:  Phil Carson at Intelligent Utility Daily posted a blog today at which corroborates this need for interoperability and vendor independence.  Check it out.



  1. Niall, Smart Grid? Nice introduction. I look forward to hearing more about it. David

  2. Niall,
    You have written a very insightful article/blog. As always you know the nitty gritty details without losing the bigger picture. Goodluck with your search in this new field which will the future per most industry analysts.


  3. Niall,

    Great blog, Standardization & vendor agnostic solutions are truly the way to go for smart grid enhancement.

    Best regards,

    Jim McPartlan

  4. […] to advertise my personal brand and make connections to people in the industry, I posted a link to my first blog posting last week on several LinkedIn groups related to Smart Grid technology and that elicited a number […]

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