Forget the smart meter. The new race in smart grid is to make the brain the field.

Echelon today announced the Echelon Control System (ECoS), a software platform, along with Edge Control Node 7000 series, hardware boxes animated by the control system. Together, the software and hardware allow utilities to monitor things like voltage fluctuation and outages and, ideally, to use this information to control the spread of outages or shave peak power.

The Control Node sits between the medium voltage assets, like capacitor banks, and the lower voltage assets, like the low-voltage transformers that stream electricity to your home, will allow other ECoS-enabled equipment to fill in other gaps. The software also normalizes the data from various assets to make it more coherent to utilities.

"There is nothing really out there right now that brings the low and medium voltage assets together," said Echelon director of marketing Steve Nguyen.

The software and hardware are compatible with a wide variety of communications protocols and also work with older types of meters. Mega-utility Duke Energy will be the first customer. Initial orders already total $14.5 million. Trials begin later this year, with production shipments starting in the second half of 2011.

Duke signed a $15.8 million contract for smart meters with room to expand with Echelon last year.

Devices like the Control Node and ECoS are expected to grow in importance as smart meters proliferate and utilities are asked to get consumers to curb power consumption. Simply put, there's going to be a lot more data and many more commands crossing between utilities and their customers and much of the processing and control is going to have to take place in the field.

Enter the multifunctional, multi-standard magic box that can communicate on standard protocols and pretty much get along with all of the other equipment on the grid. SmartSynch's GridRouter, unfurled in 2008, was the first device in this market, but others are following. Cisco is building a standards-based armada of grid routers and software -- last week it linked an alliance with meter maker Itron and bought mesh networking specialist Arch Rock.

IBM, meanwhile, has talked about the need to put quad-core processor servers on power poles and elsewhere in the field to manage smart meter data and take corrective, automated action, which is basically the same thing. Siemens has similar equipment animated with the Grid Analyzer from National Instruments.

While it's hard to say which companies will ultimately dominate this market, Echelon certainly has some built-in advantages. As one of the leading producers of power line networking equipment, it has been selling equipment to utilities for years. While not popular in the U.S. because it costs more than mesh, power line has shown strength in Europe. Italy's Enel has the largest smart grid network in the world and it's based on power line. Some cities in the U.S. have also experimented with power line to control LED street lights.

And here's something for you conspiracy nuts. Echelon was founded by A.C. "Mike" Markkula, who continues to serve as vice chairman. The hyper-secretive Markkula (I once had to do a story on him -- it was like getting information on the CIA) was Apple's chairman for years. Apple is contemplating home energy services.