As a company that has defined the concept of IT outsourcing since the 1990s, Infosys (Nasdaq: INFY) has had plenty of experience fitting new technologies into the business models of diverse industries. That includes its Energy, Utilities, Communications and Services group, with 19,000 employees and annual revenues of some $1.4 billion -- a big business, if only a small part of the 150,000-employee company.  

Now, as it faces increasing competition in its core business of writing code for hire, Infosys is striving to define itself as a specialty IT provider for certain key growth sectors -- including the smart grid.

As befits a company of its nature, that work spans continents, as well as various different types of power entities facing vastly different challenges. Those can range from the big India grid operators, now facing a new level of scrutiny after the country’s 600-million-person blackout last month, to small players like Fayetteville, N.C.’s public works commission, that need help linking their customer service call centers with their new smart grid systems. It also works with smart grid partners such as Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL), Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO), SAP (NYSE: SAP), Alstom and General Electric (NYSE: GE), to name a few.

So how is Infosys tackling the smart grid? At the highest level, the Bangalore-based giant works as an IT systems integrator and project manager, akin to its rival Indian outsourcing giants Wipro and Tata, or international giants like IBM (NYSE: IBM), Accenture (NYSE: ACN), CapGemini or Logica. Like these sometime-rivals, sometime-partners, Infosys has years of work with utilities to know where the “white space” in the industry lies, Ashiss Kumar Dash, AVP and group manager of the company’s Utilities Smart Grid Practice, said.

Specifically, Infosys has developed a suite of hardware-software solutions to drop into utilities as a hosted or managed service, he said. These include customer-billing platforms that incorporate new mobile and online payment methods popular with India’s power retailers, as well as a “utility-in-a-box” product that connects smart meter data management to small to mid-size utility back offices.

Infosys also has a power generation and renewable energy practice, working with partners like Alstom in Europe to manage distributed generation assets in ways that may fit well with India’s goals to boost off-grid power for rural populations. And at the high end, the company’s “smart integrator” product helps link diverse utility IT assets, from SCADA and cellular-linked outage management and mobile workforce platforms, to bill collection and theft detection analytics in the cloud.

There's plenty of need for heavy IT lifting in the utility space -- GTM Research projects that U.S. utilities will spend $8.2 billion on enterprise IT from 2011 to 2015 as they struggle to manage the flood of data that’s coming from smart grid deployments and integrate it into legacy IT systems. How will Infosys' offerings fit into that landscape? Here’s a quick breakdown of some of Infosys’ key smart grid efforts, as described by Dash in an interview last week:

- The “Utility-in-a-Box” product. This is one of Infosys’ newest smart grid products, built specifically for utilities with fewer than 500,000 customers. In simple terms, it’s a standards-based hardware with a set of pre-configured customer service, billing, meter data management and regulatory compliance tools, built on Oracle or SAP utility software, but with a much faster implementation timeframe than a typical deployment (here’s a PDF from SAP with some more details).

Right now the Oracle UIAB, as it’s dubbed, is being used by two unnamed utilities in India, with three more checking it out, Dash said. India’s utility market is a “very interesting” place to do business, he said, with lots of entrepreneurship underway in the regions of the country where market deregulation has allowed retail power providers to compete for customers.

While India’s megacities like Delhi and Mumbai are the realm of big energy retailers like Reliance Energy, B.E.S.T., Torrent Energy and Tata Power, much of the rest of the country is more open to different competitive models, with the relationships between traditional power distribution entities and customer-focused retail and billing specialists now being worked out, he said.

In the United States, Infosys is working with Oracle on something called a Meter Data Management Appliance, which takes Oracle’s MDM and pre-configures it so it can be quickly integrated into all the utility’s other back-end systems, he said. Oracle and Infosys also promise that the integrated system will comply with regulations on how to validate and report on the flood of data coming in from smart meters -- an important factor for smaller utilities that lack the in-house funds and expertise to do so, he said. The two are working together in Fayetteville, and Dash said that they’re talking with other U.S. utilities as well.

- The “Customer Self-Service Energy Manager” platform. As the country famous for showing that cellular communications can “leapfrog” land-line telephone service, India is on the cutting edge of finding new and easy ways for customers to use mobile devices to pay their power bills. At the same time, India has some of the worst “non-technical” losses (i.e., power theft) in the world, putting the development of new technology to catch freeloaders -- and to encourage marginal customers to pay their bills -- on the top of many utility must-do lists.

To tackle these challenges, Infosys has developed a “customer self-service” product for utilities to link up utility back-office billing and customer management platforms to an array of web, smart phone, smart tablet and cell-phone-based communications, Dash said.

In the United States, where most people tend to communicate with their utility via postal mail, mobile and web-based billing is still confined to a relatively small subset of the population. Of course, lots of smart meter and consumer engagement projects are seeking to change that, with companies like Opower, Silver Spring Networks, Aclara, Tendril and dozens more applying their technological chops to back-end utility management and front-end customer engagement in one way or another. 

Infosys’ new product is aiming at a similar level of functionality, integrating core utility account management and usage analysis tools with customer-facing social media campaigns, Facebook links and the like. At the same time, it’s enabling the hundreds of millions of “feature phones” out there to participate in the smart grid billing revolution, via SMS text message interactive voice response systems and other such methods.

While most of its utility customers still work on a managed service model, Infosys is working more and more with “risk-reward” type contracts, in which it guarantees business outcomes and then earns a profit based on how well it can exceed them, Kumar noted. That could be an interesting new way to test various propositions around better customer engagement -- along with better customer data acquisition and tracking -- to both keep customers happy, and keep their payments flowing promptly to the utility.

- The “Smart Integrator” platform. Utilities have a bewildering array of legacy technologies that need to be integrated to the platforms that run more sophisticated gear like smart meters, distribution automation equipment and Common Information Model (CIM)-based platforms for the buying and selling of power across region-wide grids.

To help out that process, Infosys has created a “smart integrator” platform that works like a hub for multiple grid-facing tools and technologies, Dash said. Those can include meter data management (MDM), geographic information systems (GIS), outage management systems (OMS), distribution management systems (DMS), asset management systems and all the other IT systems that typically don’t talk in utilities today. 

Infosys has designed the platform as an enterprise service bus, with business logic and rules to make sense of different types of data based on different use cases that a utility might look at, he said. For example, it can pull information from meter data management, transformer asset management, geographical information systems and other sources, and then come up with a list of conclusions as to what’s happening at that point in the grid. Theoretically, it could even create work orders for work crews to go fix the problem, and then report back on their progress via their mobile devices, he said.

Greentech Media has covered some of the important advantages of loosely coupling siloed utility IT systems via ESBs and other service-oriented architecture approaches, versus the more common style of linking them on a one-to-one basis via application programming interfaces (APIs). We’ve also covered the challenges that utilities will face in trying to get multi-system integration to achieve goals like real-time grid awareness or complex data analysis.

Infosys has deployed parts of its integrator product for utilities in Europe, as well as for a big utility in the U.S. Southwest  Dash said. For the most part, it’s being deployed on a case-by-case basis to integrate new systems that Infosys utility customers are deploying, he said. But it’s also a centerpiece to work with partners like Alstom, which has enlisted Infosys as an integration partner in Europe, as well as in several projects in the United States, he said, though he wouldn’t name them.

Tags: accenture, aclara, alstom, big data, capgemini, cisco, efficiency, general electric, ibm, india, infosys, policy, siemens, smart grid, smart meters