I’ve been warning for a long time that Cisco’s smart grid ambitions were going to force major changes onto the industry. The first of those changes has arrived today with the release of the first detailed version of the company’s grand framework — the reference architecture it calls GridBlocks.

The main points

This is a large and comprehensive announcement. The overarching theme is to provide utilities a single communications platform for all their smart grid needs. The three major pieces are:

  • Communications gear for substations and for field area networks (FANs)
  • Network management software that spans the Cisco network while also trading data with legacy networks
  • The first version of Cisco’s GridBlocks reference architecture

The communications hardware supports RF mesh for the collection of meter data; and WiMax and cellular for the backhaul. These new versions of its Connected Grid Routers continue the industry trend to cram more and more functions into a single box. Cisco routers are more expensive than many of today’s “collectors” and “concentrators.” However, they embrace additional functionality. In theory, claims Cisco, they lower total cost of ownership because utilities will need few devices overall.

The Cisco communications software now includes into visualization and optimization tools. (And by the way, Cisco tested this functionality with State Grid of China).

The reference architecture is the most detailed and comprehensive yet, not to mention the most “power-grid aware,” veering from the IT-centric architectures we’ve seen to date. It will have big implications for how utilities architect their systems. And how they roll them out, since Cisco is promoting a modular, phased approach.

Key takeaways

  • Cisco is now in the smart grid communications business with both hardware and software, competing directly with companies such as Silver Spring Networks, Trilliant and SmartSynch. And with the many meter vendors who also provide communications, which includes most of the majors. (In tune with our sector’s “compete today, collaborate tomorrow” mentality, Cisco hopes to partner with those same meter makers too, by convincing them to support the Cisco network protocols.)
  • Cisco now has communications hardware for substations and for field area networks (FANs) to collect meter data.
  • Cisco will use its market strength to enforce full and complete open standards. Anyone who wants to plug its gear directly into a Cisco communications network must adhere to the Cisco choices and implementations. If you are not familiar with the controversy, here is a key drawing from one of the Cisco slides that shows the bridge we all must cross. Today, most IP-based systems use open standards on only one of four layers. The Cisco system is compliant across all four. Most of today’s end points use open standards on only one layer (right-hand stack). Cisco’s new products use open standards on all four (left-hand stack). Cisco is compliant to its own interpretation of open standards, I hasten to add. Cisco claims to be using only open standards. True enough, except that many smart grid standards are incomplete or immature or available in different flavors.
  • Cisco has expanded its business and planning services, putting it in growing competition with Accenture, Capgemini, IBM and the like. These services take advantage of a new Cisco tool for evaluating multiple scenarios. Cisco tells me the tool helps utilities take a phased, modular approach to communications. First you design the end state where you want to end up eventually. Then you move towards that goal in manageable steps. And you do that with confidence that the modules will interoperate seamlessly as they come online. When AusGrid (a Sydney-based utility with 1.6 million endpoints) used this approach, Cisco claims it was able to reduce capex by 40%.
  • GridBlocks is an 11-tier, “system of systems” reference model. Each tier – each GridBlock-includes specific implementation recommendations, in some cases all the way down to reference designs for component hardware. Some GridBlocks are more fully fleshed out than others. In this release, Cisco is emphasizing the substation and FAN GridBlocks.
  • Cisco’s reference architecture is more “power grid aware” than predecessors from suppliers such as IBM and Microsoft. Most other reference architectures a) are more IT-centric and b) have fewer implementation details and typically lack reference designs for the hardware components.
  • Cisco has licensed some of those reference designs to Itron. Now we’ll have to see whether Cisco makes it easy and inexpensive for other companies to license. If so, its view of the smart grid world may quickly proliferate. If it gets too greedy too soon, it may stall. And even if it makes its licensing affordable, there will be plenty of resistance from rivals who don’t want to give Cisco any control over how they build their hardware.

So expect many of Cisco’s “frenemies” to buy into the open standards concept, but to resist the idea that Cisco should solely define how to implement those standards. To the extent resistance arises, we may see different versions of open standards vie against each other. If that happens, it will delay – but not stop — our transition to a true, plug-and-play smart grid.

Cisco promises to utilities

In connection with this announcement, Cisco is claiming it can:

  • Consolidate the management of multiple communications networks, including legacy systems
  • Maintain pervasive security throughout
  • Scale to as high as 10 million meters

The network accommodates legacy communications such as SCADA, DSL and ISDN by “translating” their data. Utilities will be able to preserve their existing networks, but they can now umbrella them with Cisco’s secure, enterprise-class software.

Itron is the first major meter maker to adopt the Cisco plan and is rolling it out at BC Hydro. I expect other meter makers to follow. They will probably be led by Landis+Gyr. That firm had a Cisco partnership that predated the Itron deal, but implementation got sidetracked when L+G was purchased by Toshiba.

If there is any single lesson from this announcement, it is this (and it applies to both utilities and to suppliers): Study Cisco’s version of standards-based interoperability very carefully. Then be prepared to migrate to it or to match it with something equally strong. As the smart grid moves (finally!) to end-to-end interoperability, the last thing you want is to find yourself stranded on your own proprietary island.

Utilities should immediately study the reference architecture to see what they want to borrow. And they should carefully monitor what Cisco’s competitors bring out in response.

They should also watch for the next installment of the Cisco story. It will, I predict, take Cisco much further into the operations side of the grid, including the “high-end,” wide-area-network space and the emerging applications that take advantage of synchrophasor data. Cisco will extend its management software into power grid operations, continuing our sector’s gradual move to merge IT and OT (information technology and operational technology).

In some ways, this announcement is a coming out party for the Cisco smart grid division. It started with just five people. Today it has nearly 150, not counting sales, support and other functions provided by the Cisco mother ship. It also has more than 85 paying utility customers around the world.

Photo Caption: Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers delivers a keynote at the Moscone Center in San Francisco during the Oracle OpenWorld 2011 on October 5, 2011 in California.