Most large utilities use carrier frame relay services for their private local area network connections. However, due to changing technologies, these utilities are facing sunset dates when these services will no longer be available. This, combined with telecom carriers’ own favoring of next generation IP (Internet protocol) services, means that utilities are searching for ways to smoothly migrate their networks away from traditional frame relay networks.

Originally, frame relay was an inexpensive means to connect local area networks over a wide area network, and it is still commonly used in private utility network architecture.  However, with the arrival of optical transport networks, IP/MPLS and virtualization, utilities looking toward the future know that these new technologies are better suited for today’s smart grid.

“Few utilities have the means to overhaul their network all at once, so they should select a multi-phase approach instead,” said David Hulinsky, Director, Utility Telecommunications for Black & Veatch. This could mean leveraging existing network infrastructure as much as possible or phasing out network equipment over time and methodically transitioning to an advanced architecture, like Ethernet over MPLS (multiprotocol label switching). A thorough network assessment and execution delivery plan are recommended as a beginning point.

“A network assessment and execution delivery plan ensure this transition happens as expected, seamlessly and efficiently, with little downtime,” Hulinsky said.

The network assessment provides the foundation for network design from a systems and execution perspective, Hulinsky said. It should consider all aspects of a utility’s network system, including network management, capacity planning, optimization, network operations, security compliance and support for real-time applications.

Evolving Technologies Prompt Changes

There are a variety of factors that are compelling the change away from frame relay. The evolving requirements of the smart grid, using tools such as automation, sensors and data analytics, are driving up the capacity and latency requirements of networks. This demands bandwidth from an increasingly exhausted infrastructure, Hulinsky said.

In addition, utilities are now relying on advanced technologies to meet growing regulation demands for renewable energy targets, reliable service, security and energy efficiency.

“Current network infrastructure is reaching obsolescence,” Hulinsky noted. “Public carriers are discontinuing services, such as frame relay.”

The Network Assessment​

Utilities can reduce long-term costs and enhance reliability by migrating to a more scalable and flexible network infrastructure, Hulinsky said. As utilities begin to develop their roadmap for network migration, the assessments should include:

•  A review of current network assets, transmission and distribution topology
•  Documentation of the existing and new application requirements
•  Data flow analysis for applications and services
•  Analysis of network bandwidth use and requirements
•  Examination of network and security requirements
•  Resource and staffing analysis
•  Industry benchmarks
•  Interviews with all stakeholders to capture buy-in and utility goals

Once the network assessment is completed, conceptual and detailed designs can begin. The actual implementation process starts with procurement, testing and finally installation. Having a single vendor to work through the project’s entirety helps a utility manage each piece of the planning and execution, Hulinsky said.

“Our experience in planning, design and implementation of these complex projects puts utilities on the right track toward ensuring that their network infrastructure will support all of their needs now and well into the future.”

Published originally on Black & Veatch Solutions. 

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