What every utility can learn from Microsoft (Hint: how to be an "integrated utility")


By: SGN Staff


By Jesse Berst


When I last discussed Microsoft's Smart Energy Reference Architecture (SERA), I suggested it should be required reading for all utilities, even those that are not Microsoft customers. I feel the same about the new Microsoft SERA version 2.0, released in April, 2013. The updated document starts with an overview of the forces shaping the industry, followed by architectural principles and maturity models. Only the fifth and final section is specifically about Microsoft products. Those principles and models have great value, even if you don't follow the product suggestions.


As you will read, the revised SERA has several areas of focus. But I noticed one underlying theme. Microsoft is promoting the idea of the  "integrated utility" -- a common computing platform and common data model for both the operational technology (OT) and the information technology (IT) sides of the company.


Many utilities still have not implemented that kind of utility-wide enterprise architecture... and that puts them at great disadvantage. Remedying this flaw requires you to, in Microsoft's words, "invert your viewpoint. You must first consider the needs of enterprise as an integrated whole and then consider how to expose shared functionality through networked applications. This kind of thinking is quite different from traditional monolithic application development."


Skim the article below for a few highlights from SERA 2.0 and from my recent conversation with the two men who guide Microsoft's utility strategy, Jon Arnold, Managing Director, Worldwide Power and Utilities, and Larry Cochrane, Industry Technology Strategist/Architect. But I urge you to download the PDF of Microsoft SERA 2.0 and read it yourself.



I told you recently about the value of Cisco's GridBlocks architecture, which has convergence as one of its themes - the convergence of the electric power and communications networks. In its newly update reference architecture, Microsoft has chosen to emphasize the integration of IT and OT. The vision is to allow a utility to run both sides of the house on a single enterprise platform. And to allow that utility to put as much (or as little) of that platform in the cloud as it wants.


At 255 pages, the Microsoft reference architecture covers a lot of ground. I think these four areas deserve special attention: cloud computing, Big Data, mobility and security.


Cloud computing options

Every utility needs to have a plan to take advantage of cloud computing. Done right, it offers decreases in cost accompanied by increases in power and flexibility. Consider a natural disaster, which can quickly overwhelm a utility's IT infrastructure. A cloud-based infrastructure and scale up instantaneously to handle a major restoration effort, then scale back down once it is no longer needed.

Big Data requires data models

Microsoft now has a compelling Big Data story. A key part is Microsoft's extensive data model for utilities. The Common Information Model (CIM) covers 4 to 5 operational areas. Microsoft's data model currently covers another 24 business areas. It's a great step forward in the integration of IT and OT. Microsoft can now claim that its architecture to covers generation through delivery and includes all business areas.


Be sure to review Microsoft's viewpoints on master data management (MDM). As they point out: "MDM is not just a technological problem. In many cases, fundamental changes to business process will be required... and some of the most difficult MDM issues are more political than technical."


The march to mobility

Whether you realize it or not, support for mobile devices will soon be mandatory for all utilities. They will need the ability to send alerts to any device. Alerts to employees and field personnel. And alerts to customers as well - for instance, in the case of a major outage.


"There is a big trend to use tablets in the field," Jon Arnold told me. He cited Australia's SP AusNet as an example. With 1,800 employees, SP AusNet serves more than 1.2 million electric and gas customers in southeast Australia. They are equipping fieldworkers with tablets, so they can get instructions and just-in-time training in the field.


"Because they're using the cloud to power the tablets," Arnold explained, "they could bring on another 100 people in a matter of hours" should a disaster hit that required help from outside work crews.


A solid security methodology

SERA version 2.0 covers the transition to a risk-based security model. It discusses cybersecurity all the way through the stack and delves into NERC compliance issues. Microsoft's security thinking has matured into a well-defined methodology.


The power of partnerships

I'll conclude by suggesting that SERA is important not just because of Microsoft, but also because of the other companies that are adopting it. SERA is endorsed by number of Microsoft partners, who committed to baking it into their own efforts. Key examples include OSIsoft, Schneider Electric and Ferranti Computer Systems. An integrated utility needs an integrated ecosystem of suppliers, and Microsoft is working to put that in place as well.


Jesse Berst is the founder and Chief Analyst of SGN and Chairman of the Smart Cities Council, an industry coalition.