In recent weeks, IBM and Oracle have touted the results of their meter data management scalability tests. At stake are bragging rights for processing billions of meter readings per hour. But these same IT vendors have the benefit of dedicated experts working with state-of-the-art computing equipment in lab environments that would make the average card-carrying utility system administrator salivate -- and that’s probably an understatement.

What does a high-end benchmark test environment look like? Multi-core servers with large storage arrays, highly tuned cache management, scads of I/O ports, carefully tuned databases and such. 

Scalability is definitely within reach, but at what price?  Let’s face it -- a lot of money and expertise is needed to build a truly scalable high-end enterprise data management system.  

While it’s fun to talk about Ferraris, not everyone can afford one. But it sure would be nice to rent one -- whenever you want to go really fast. 

Welcome to the world of the elastic cloud. The business model is mind-numbingly simple. It originated back in the early mainframe days when hardware was too expensive for a company to own outright. With time-sharing, companies rented big iron instead of buying it. They paid for the size of their computing job and the amount of time it ran. This enabled many organizations to share the cost of computing infrastructure. Call it communal computing. The elastic cloud business model is similar to time-sharing, but with a twist. An elastic cloud enables computing resources to be created on demand, as needed. Further, computing resources can be allocated dynamically to accommodate varying performance and throughput requirements.

The possibilities for smart grid are intriguing. One example: cleaning smart meter data to create billing determinants, a process known as VEE (validation, estimating and editing). This is an example where a lot of computing horsepower is desired for a short amount of time. For instance, a utility with two million smart meters collecting 15-minute interval data, plus three register reads per meter will have 102 million data records to deal with every business day. Utilities using an elastic cloud service can host an instance of their MDM with a service provider on a dedicated basis or for specific tasks, such as validating and estimating meter readings, for instance. If the job is taking too long, then more compute resources can be requisitioned on demand.      

But how close is the industry to actually realizing the promise of cloud-based meter data management?  It’s not for want of cloud-based MDMs. EMeter kicked off the year by announcing a cloud software partnership with Verizon. And just last week, Ecologic Analytics announced a new generation of its meter data management software, including capabilities to run in hosted environments. 

The cloud movement is not limited to MDM. For instance, Aclara, which controls 15 of the top 25 consumer engagement utility websites, has been providing its consumer engagement portal as a cloud service that has “been in place for a long time before the ‘cloud’ was the ‘cloud,'” according to Paul Lekan, VP of Marketing Communications for Aclara. There are also the issues of security and application integration to consider. Lekan cites a growing legion of utility applications that can leverage AMI data about system health, outage, voltage and other ancillary data sources to existing utility applications. “Having the data validated and available locally and tightly integrated … shifts the dialogue to resident servers, which in most cases are hardened with redundant backups.”

There is also the issue of grid cybersecurity to consider. As attractive as an elastic cloud offering may appear, enough concern about data privacy and security lingers to pass a dark cloud (pun intended) of fear, uncertainty and doubt over the prospect of outsourcing critical AMI data to a third-party data center.

Over the short term, cloud offerings, coupled with MDM 'quick start' kits offered by Ecologic Analytics, eMeter and others, can help utilities just getting started with AMI to get up and running quickly with pilot projects and even small-scale production rollouts. Whether the elastic cloud will catch on as a way to run core utility systems remains uncertain. What is certain, however, is that the MDM scalability wars are reaching a fever pitch -- a key indicator that we are moving into MDM 2.0, which will be marked by large-scale deployments and the integration of AMI data with legacy utility applications.