Technology

Network computing: new energy challenges

 By Andrew Burger

People the world over continue to find new uses for and spend more time with smartphones, other mobile communications devices. That often means more time using bandwidth-intensive services. Network operators are racing to keep pace, accelerating infrastructure upgrades, developing new industry-wide technical standards for optical fiber and wireless broadband networking, and commercializing a host of new products and services, such as streaming 4K UHD TV, augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR) and Internet of Things (IoT) technology…

Cloud communications and computing platforms are the hubs of this most recent evolutionary phase of Internet-centered distributed computing and communications. The shift is evident in the power and energy sectors, where growing use of distributed energy resources (DERs), demand response systems and smart grid technology is leading utilities, energy services companies and young, innovative start-ups to develop new ways of producing, distributing and managing electrical power—a transition that requires much closer engagement with customers.

Taking things a step further, leading Internet and high-tech players are encouraging businesses across the socioeconomic spectrum to reach out to the far corners of the network by adopting a growing diversity of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, equipment and analytics. In order to handle all the resulting data flows, they’re also pushing for the adoption of “fog,” aka edge computing—a new, fast-emerging cloud-based network architecture that one industry veteran said heralds the advent of the third great phase of Internet evolution.

Edge computing analyze

From the Internet of Things to the Internet of Everything

Smart, Internet-connected wireless sensors capable of measuring a wide and expanding range of parameters – location, speed, distance, temperature, pressure, charge, current, etc. and actuators able to take actions based on resulting decisions – can now be found in power generation facilities, substations and along transmission and distribution (T&D) lines, as well as consumer electronics, vehicles, homes, office buildings, supermarkets, warehouses, manufacturing facilities and industrial plants.

All told, an estimated 15.4 billion-plus “things” capable of sending and receiving automated machine-to-machine (M2M) communications were connected to the Internet as of year-end 2015, a number that could double by 2020, according to a forecast from IHS Technology.

The resulting data flows are enormous, and they’re only going to continue growing at rapid rates, which begs the need for greater network capacity and more efficient ways of transporting digital data, as well as ways to organize and make good use of it. Proponents say that fog computing will take us from the “Internet of Things” to the “Internet of Everything.”

Energy IoT in the Fog

Having embarked on all-out IoT drive last year, Verizon, the second largest telecoms carrier in the U.S., anticipates revenues from its IoT business lines and activities will exceed $1 billion in 2016. That includes revenue from sales of IoT products and services that come under the umbrella of its Grid Wide Utility Solutions brand.

Verizon isn’t alone. AT&T, ABB, Ericsson, GE, Google and IBM are just a few of the multinational corporations keen to earn their piece of the “Energy IoT” market pie. So are Cisco and Intel, which joined with ARM, Dell, Microsoft and the Princeton University Edge Laboratory in November 2015 to create the OpenFog Consortium. “Many smart grid applications, such as a fault detection, isolation and service restoration (FLISR) or Volt/VAR optimization (VVO), cannot wait for data from sensors to travel to the cloud, and then wait for applications to assess and respond”, Russ Banham writes for the two high-tech leaders in a recent column published in Forbes online magazine.

“Delays are longer if the data is running over a cellular connection with limited bandwidth. As the IoT introduces millions of devices and latency-sensitive transactions, the traditional cloud approach will become even more strained.” Rather than having to transport data and instructions between IoT end nodes to and from cloud data centers, fog computing creates localized processing and distribution nodes that wind up pushing much of the workload down and out to the network edge. Placing these tasks closer to their sources enhances the ability to gather, analyze and act upon data that may be time-sensitive or critical—the failure of a transformer or a break along a transmission line, for instance.

Connecting and Measuring

These are just two of the significant advantages and benefits fog computing proponents highlight as they try to spur adoption. It also could significantly enhance network operators’ ability to manage the explosive growth in Internet and private network traffic by sharply reducing the amount of IoT data that needs to be sent to cloud platforms for processing, analysis and storage.

That, in turn, would yield big savings by avoiding the need to spend on expensive conventional network communications infrastructure. It could also open huge new business opportunities and markets. At its root, the IoT is about connecting and measuring, which enables companies to derive greater value from devices and equipment, and enable them to do more than what they were originally designed to do, Cisco Australia CTO Keven Bloch told an audience at Utility Week in Sydney, Australia in late November.

A “smart” street light, for example, can also be used for metering, surveillance and traffic management. National Narrowband Network Co. (NNN), one of Cisco Australia’s IoT partners has taken the design of a conventional street light and added some silicon-based intelligence and IP-based network connectivity to it. “All of a sudden…[y]ou can start providing a whole range of services beyond just shedding some light on the street, in terms of parking, congestion management, and so on,” Bloch told ZDNet.

NNN is partnering with utilities to roll out a nationwide low-power wide-area network for IoT devices. Cheaper and better suited to the task, NNN believes LoRaWAN networks should be used to build the backbone of IoT network “fogs.” “It’s not about the thing; it’s about the data, it’s about the insights from the data, and it’s about the services we can provide from it,” Bloch summed up.

SEE MORE: Inside the Green Data Center by Marco Alfieri

about the author
Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger has been reporting on energy, technology, political economy, climate and the environment for a variety of online media properties for over five years.