The Cisco/Itron Alliance – Game Changer or Buzzword Bingo?

Cisco and Itron announced a strategic alliance that promises to “advance the transformation of the world’s energy infrastructure”. It sounds pretty big, yes? The press release would be a good source for smart grid “buzzword bingo”, with the announcement of a joint collaboration on a standards-based, open, highly secure, interoperable, scalable, reliable, enterprise- class, IP-based, end-to-end, reference-design platform. The hour-long press/analyst call didn’t seem to clear up the confusion, judging from the number of calls I fielded from various folks just afterwards.

So just what did Cisco and Itron announce? It seems Itron and Cisco will develop network software, initially instantiated within Itron’s OpenWay smart meter hardware, leveraging IPv6 and other “Cisco IP” goodies, for a highly secure, open, and interoperable RF mesh field area network. Itron will embed and license “Cisco IP technology” within OpenWay as well as distribute Cisco networking equipment and hardware.

Ultimately, this “platform” will be offered to all (i.e. other AMI and smart grid vendors) to help grow the market. Neither vendor would answer questions about product specifics or timing of when the “platform” would be released. Still seem fuzzy? Itron has already embraced IP in their recent revamp of the OpenWay network. An IEEE 802.15.4 working group is working feverishly on a RF mesh utility network standard, and the IETF is nearing completion of an IP-based ZigBee stack redo to be included with the eagerly anticipated Smart Energy Profile 2.0. So is there anything new and interesting in this alliance?

Plenty – at least potentially. Buzzword bingo aside, there are no “highly secure, open, and interoperable” AMI neighborhood area networks today, except perhaps the PLC-based smart meter interoperability demonstrated last year in Europe between Itron, Landis+Gyr, and Iskraemeco under the influence of EDF’s 35 million meter checkbook. Other smart grid application domains, such as distribution and substation automation, are similarly challenged. These are all rapidly moving toward IP, and while IP adoption is necessary, it is far from sufficient for delivery of the “secure, open, and interoperable” promise.

Cisco may be the only vendor with the technical capability, financial heft, and market audacity to bring a unified end-to-end smart grid communications architecture to fruition, and this venture with Itron should be seen in this context.

The “Cisco IP” that Itron is licensing and embedding should be understood as both “Internet Protocol” and “Intellectual Property”. This includes much of the “special sauce” that is required to actually operate a robust end-to-end network. And providing differentiated (even proprietary?) special sauce such as network management, security regimes, and performance monitoring and management, within the context of IP standards, is largely how Cisco came to lead in the market for enterprise and telecom networks.

What Cisco gains from this partnership is an opportunity to proliferate such “Cisco IP” to a growing base of smart meters. This is key puzzle piece in for an integrated end-to-end network offering, where the rewards in the home and enterprise parts of smart grid may be Cisco’s biggest opportunity. Having Itron as a channel for Cisco equipment is an obvious and necessary bonus.

Itron gains badly needed “street cred” as an IP-based AMI supplier, especially versus Silver Spring Networks, who has given them fits. More importantly however, Itron likely realized that the walls of the AMI garden are down, and gaining pride of place within Cisco’s unified smart grid architecture is a strong competitive move. The actual technology Itron can leverage, especially for security, won’t be bad either, allowing them to concentrate on the actual AMI hardware and applications instead of reinventing the network wheel.

There are a few warning signs customers should monitor. In the press release, Cisco’s Paul De Martini calls Itron’s current-generation OpenWay solution “an excellent candidate for future upgrades”, though the Itron execs were somewhat less equivocal during the analyst conference call. And historically “Cisco IP” has no less vendor lock-in power than the most proprietary SCADA or AMI system today.

Other smart grid vendors may feel a bit uneasy, especially Silver Spring Networks, who is still building momentum for their seemingly perpetually-imminent IPO on the strength of an IP-based system. Some Itron partners may also need reassurance, particularly Certicom, a supplier of public key encryption and key management technology, who could easily get squeezed out of OpenWay.

Given the vagueness of the specifics and timing around this announcement, it will take some time before we can assess whether any of the potential promise is being met. We’ll be watching to see how Cisco assembles additional pieces in their smart grid puzzle, especially around broad architectural technologies such as network management and security. We’ll also see how Itron’s AMI roadmap evolves to match up with such Cisco architectural initiatives.

So it may be some time before we can declare “bingo”, but in the meantime, let the buzzwords fly!

Article by Bob Gohn, appearing courtesy Matter Network.

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