The smart grid data analytics field is about to undergo an evolution no less complex than the evolution of the smart grid itself. In fact, the promise of linking the smart grid’s disparate systems -- smart meters, distribution automation devices, distributed generation, energy storage, plug-in vehicles and the rest -- can’t be fulfilled without it.

Or perhaps we should back up and say that the promise of each of these individual smart grid systems can’t be realized without a new focus on data and the tools to help utilities make it into an asset, not a liability. Let’s start with the most obvious and pressing smart grid need facing utilities today: smart meter data management.

The MDM field has undergone radical changes in just the past three months. In that time, we’ve seen the two biggest standalone vendors in the field swallowed up by corporate giants -- first, eMeter, bought by Siemens, and then Ecologic Analytics, snapped up by Landis+Gyr, the metering giant that was itself bought by Toshiba for $2.3 billion last year, for an undisclosed sum.

That, in turn, has put pressure on smaller players in the MDM space, such as Aclara, ElectSolve, Hansen Technologies, NorthStar Utilities, and select others, to partner up or get overwhelmed. In January, MDM-smart meter vendor Aclara and SOA smart grid integration startup Calico Energy partnered on a platform promising to link meter data management to demand response. Later that month, smaller municipal and cooperative utility MDM specialist ElectSolve joined grid networking startup On-Ramp Wireless for a “pre-integrated smart metering and critical infrastructure monitoring solution.”

As for the big boys in the meter data management space -- smart meter giant Itron and quiet utility back-end software behemoth Oracle -- they haven’t been standing still while their key competitors have been bought up. Take Itron, which recently announced the launch of its new smart grid analytics platform, quickly followed by news that it was doubling its Raleigh, N.C. software workforce to more than 400 people.

Itron holds a market-leading position in software to manage data from interval meters, the category that distinguishes managing smart meters that communicate with the utility in “intervals” from managing old-fashioned meters read only once a month. Itron no doubt wants to maintain that dominance, both for its own MDM business (which includes plenty of non-Itron meters, by the way), and in its smart meter-to-grid networking partnership with Cisco.  

On that note, last month saw Cisco announce a new suite of smart grid products and services, including a new field-area network solution, a network management system and a grid architecture reference design. While not specifically linked to smart grid data management, Cisco’s grid-as-platform architecture will no doubt influence how the rest of the industry thinks about networks as a part of the puzzle.

Oracle, for its part, has been promoting its successes in managing the massive volumes of data that smart meters are bringing to utilities unused to handling such a deluge. Alongside IBM, Oracle has been a key partner for utilities seeking to upgrade their legacy back-office systems to prevent that flood of data from threatening the smooth handling of smart meters’ core function as cash registers.

But beyond keeping their heads above water in the data deluge, utilities are going to need new tools to analyze it all to achieve the operational and customer service improvements they’ve promised. To that end, Oracle is promoting the linkage of its core meter data management products with business intelligence, customer service, asset management, outage detection and distribution grid management systems -- that is, Oracle’s suite of grid network management software. 

IBM, which is probably the biggest smart grid “master integrator” in the world, is also deep in partnerships with the vendors that supply core MDM functions. Itron’s platform, for instance, embeds technology from SAP, IBM and Teradata for data warehousing, business intelligence and analytics, building on the partners’ work with Southern California Edison.

Another enterprise software player tackling the space through partnerships is SAP, whose Lighthouse Council framework has gathered partners, including the quiet but significant MDM player OSIsoft, in what’s likely to develop into a hard-fought competition with Oracle.

We’ve also seen important acquisitions merge MDM capabilities with expertise and market share on the other side of the meter. Low and medium-voltage power equipment kingpin Schneider Electric’s $2 billion purchase of Telvent bought it entrée into a host of smart meter and smart grid deployments in Europe and North America, including quite a bit of MDM expertise. 

In the meantime, we’ve seen some interesting moves occur from outside the traditional MDM position as well. Silver Spring Networks’ latest investor, EMC, has pledged to work with the smart metering startup on “analyzing smart grid data to make it actionable and valuable to utilities and their customers.” Startup Verdeeco is promising tools to pull existing smart grid data, much of which is being under-utilized, and turn it into insight via “apps” built to suit for the small municipal and cooperative utility market.

Underscoring all these developments is the need for utilities to integrate all their smart grid system data into a single platform for master management, so to speak. Siemens’ acquisition of eMeter helps illustrate the ways MDM functionality can serve as the foundation for a host of other smart grid functions. On the data analytics side, eMeter’s latest iteration of its EnergyIP software suite promises built-in outage detection, power load monitoring and meter health, as well as the potential to add prepay options for customers, as well as network loss management and an interface to utility customer service reps.

On the smart grid integration front, Siemens and eMeter are working with Kansas City Power & Light to integrate MDM into other smart grid systems, as well as with a few smaller utilities to deliver demand response services, to name a few examples.

Indeed, projects like these may well be the end goal of most every MDM vendor out there -- in essence, to grow beyond the MDM moniker’s limitations to incorporate a broader suite of data they can access and uses they can apply it to.

To learn more, come to The Networked Grid 2012, Greentech Media's 4th annual two-day smart grid summit to be held in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina on April 4-5, 2012.