Everyone knows that the smart grid has a big data problem -- but some problems are easier to handle than others. Sure, millions of smart meters need to send out accurate bills every month, and distribution grid controls have to react to changes in power flows and stability in split seconds.

But both of those tasks pale in comparison to the big data challenge presented by phasor measurement units, or PMUs. Also known as synchrophasors, these devices sit on transmission lines and at substations, checking out the magnitude and angle of electrical sine waves at the speed of the grid -- 60 cycles per second in North America, to be precise -- and then synchronizing that data across entire regions and grid networks, using global positioning system radio clocks.

That adds up to a ton of data, all moving very fast, and with accuracy demands that require a high-speed communications system just to capture what the PMUs are sensing. Figuring out what the data means, and what grid operators should do about it, is another challenge altogether. Utilities, grid operators, smart grid partners and government parties like the Department of Energy and its national labs, have been busy building the IT infrastructures necessary to translate those masses of data into actionable intelligence.

On Monday, Dell and OSIsoft launched an integrated hardware-software platform meant to take that PMU data challenge out of the laboratories and into the commercial markets. Dubbed Dell’s Smart Grid Data Management Solution, it's a combination of Dell servers, flash memory, network switches and storage devices that have been custom-rigged, so to speak, to handle PMU data at speeds close to real time, as well as to provide faster, deeper analytics capabilities over the long run.

Dell has a big roster of utility clients for its hardware, but this is its first dedicated product for the smart grid, Jeff Gillespey, Dell’s energy global practice lead, said in an interview. It’s part of Dell’s attempt to expand from IT hardware into more tailored, industry-specific software and “solutions” lines of work, a move that has come with a good number of acquisitions by the Round Rock, Texas-based computer giant.

OSIsoft, the San Leandro, Calif.-based data software company with a large utility client list and a key role in a DOE-funded PMU project that's covering the Western U.S. with synchrophasors, worked closely with Dell on developing the reference architecture of its new platform, Gillespey said. Both partners were brought together by a common utility customer that was searching for a way to manage its PMU data, he said.

PMU data has been available for some time, and it’s been put to use for operational purposes like situational awareness for regional grid operators, or research needs, like analyzing past grid failures to pinpoint the series of events that led to them, and how to avoid them in the future.

But pulling that data out of the past and into day-to-day utility operations represents a huge challenge. PMU expert Schweitzer Engineering Labs (SEL) recommends allocating 60 gigabytes of storage for a 30-day archive of only 4 PMUs, for example, while the DOE-funded Western Interconnection Synchrophasor Program is installing 300 PMUs across the Western U.S. -- or, to use SEL’s math, about 4,500 gigabytes, or 4.4 terabytes, of data per month.

Dell and OSIsoft’s new offering is integrated in a way to accept that extremely high-speed data, process it and store it for quick retrieval throughout its lifecycle, said Amy Price, Dell storage solutions manager. That means it’s fast enough to deliver close to real-time information to energy management systems (EMS), or the software that controls its grid at the generation and transmission level, she said.

That, in turn, could lead to a real-time system to check grid health, as well as assess the results of corrective actions -- a big challenge for grid management systems that are built on models that need to be updated for every change on the real-world grid to work most accurately. Indeed, availability to PMU data, along with tools to use it, could have helped grid operators avoid the series of events that led to the 2003 blackout that left about 50 million people in the Northeast U.S. and Canada without power, according to a recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and database company Versant.

Dell and OSIsoft haven’t named any customers for the new platform yet, but they’re testing it out with utilities. Rick Reeder, Dell technical expert, said that the one utility that originally asked the partners for the solution is using it in an operational environment, though he wouldn’t name the customer.

There’s a pretty short list of big utilities across the United States that are doing big synchrophasor projects, however. California is one hotspot, where San Diego Gas & Electric has led the pack in incorporating synchrophasor data into the grid state estimator module of its EMS. SDG&E plans to build out an operator user interface and roll out synchrophasors at all its major transmission substations by 2013.

The state’s other big IOUs are following suit. Southern California Edison is investing $42 million in hardware, data storage, operator and analyst user interfaces and data analytics for reports and engineering analysis from now through 2014, as well as $15 million to $40 million through the end of the decade, to install PMUs at 48 substations and about 26 generation interconnections. Pacific Gas & Electric is also taking part with a $42.9 million regional demonstration project.

Other utilities doing synchrophasors include FP&L, Duke Energy, and Idaho Power Authority, with a combined $250 million or so dedicated to synchrophasors. All told, GTM Research predicts that utilities will spend about $800 million on synchrophasor projects from 2011 to 2015. About 35 percent of that, or about $280 million, will be dedicated to operations center spending on new software applications and enhancements to energy management systems -- the category in which Dell and OSIsoft’s new platform would fit.

In the broader context of smart grid IT, Dell and OSIsoft’s launch is one of many new offerings from partners combining software and hardware in easy-to-integrate packages. Last month saw Silver Spring Networks and SAP launch fast-deployment smart grid IT offerings, aimed at cutting implementation schedules from years or months to weeks. Infosys is working with SAP and Oracle on a utility-in-a-box product for integrated customer service, billing and data management, for example, and Cisco and NetApp are deploying similar packages for data center energy management.

Tags: big data, da, dell, distribution automation, ems, osisoft, pg&e, sce, sdg&e, smart grid, synchrophasor, transformer, utilities