Source: Flickr user densaer
Cisco’s 800-pound gorilla-style entry into the smart grid sector has been premised on one key point — an end-to-end IP-based smart grid network. Last week, Cisco bought San Francisco-based startup Arch Rock, who promises an IP-compliant set of mesh networking technologies. Cisco plans to bring this technology to market in partnership with smart meter giant Itron, placing the three companies squarely in competition with, well, just about everybody else in the space. That includes the likes of Silver Spring Networks and Trilliant, proprietary networks of meter makers like Elster and Landis+Gyr, as well as IP-compliant offerings from cellular carriers and WiMax-enabled smart meter systems.
But just what makes the new Cisco-Arch Rock-Itron combo such a competitive offer for the industry? And how does it differ from the myriad other offerings out there?
Arch Rock’s PhyNet-Grid technology is built to comply with the latest work by IEEE’s 802.15 Smart Utility Networks (SUN) Task Group 4G, which is developing so-called 802.15.4g standards for utility networks, specifically working on the physical (PHY) layer and media access control (MAC) sublayer.
That’s an important point, given that competitors tend to have proprietary physical layers. Silver Spring uses its own 900Mhz technology, as do mesh technologies of Elster and Landis+Gyr (so does Itron’s current OpenWay system). Trilliant, on the other hand, goes with commodity IEEE 802.15.4 PHY and MAC layers at 2.4Ghz gigahertz.
Silver Spring and Trilliant both told me that they’re ready to move to gain compliance with 802.15.4g, but Arch Rock’s close alignment with the 802.15.4g process — combined with Cisco’s IP networking expertise and stature — could give utility customers confidence that it will get there first. But Arch Rock can’t quite say it’s there yet — nobody can, because the standards aren’t yet complete.
Arch Rock said in June that it expected to have PhyNet-enabled gear in pilot deployments by the end of 2010, and its new home within Cisco could make that deadline possible. Still, Pike Research projects the smart meter space will continue to be dominated by proprietary mesh technologies, though standards-based systems will increase their share. Itron’s OpenWay system can be remotely upgraded to support a Cisco-Arch Rock system, Paul De Martini, CTO and VP of strategy for Cisco’s smart grid business unit, said in a Friday interview. But then, many newer smart meters have firmware upgrade capability, as do Silver Spring and Trilliant’s technologies.
And mesh isn’t the only network the smart grid will need. Certain grid automation functions require super-fast connections that are a better fit for fiber, specialized wireless systems like S&C Electric’s SpeedNet — and, perhaps, WiMax, though it still struggles to be cost-competitive with proprietary mesh technologies. Cellular networks offer an IP-based platform, but with limitations on coverage and higher costs — though carriers like Verizon, AT&T and Sprint are said to be lowering their prices to attract smart grid business.
On the other end of the power-cost spectrum, what’s to become of Arch Rock’s existing business in low-power wireless sensor networks for data centers and commercial and industrial buildings? That technology, centered on a different standards effort called 802.15.4e, will play a role Cisco’s and Itron’s mesh networking partnership by offering the ability to continue working during power outages — a trait that could set further set the company’s offerings apart from those of competitors.
But while De Martini said Cisco would support Arch Rock’s existing data center and C&I customers, he wouldn’t say if the company would seek new ones, only that it was “exploring opportunities.” Cisco already has a building automation effort centered on its Building Mediator product, as well as a home energy manager product, so perhaps it doesn’t have room for Arch Rock’s original plan for wireless building sensors. After all, despite Cisco’s “everywhere, all at once” smart grid play, it can’t be expected to do everything.