Cloud Computing for Utilities

By Greg Richards, VP of DevOps, Itron

Greg Richards, VP of DevOps, Itron

In the utility industry, the cloud is an old concept. People don’t generate their own power, have a water treatment plant in their backyard or chop and store wood every fall for a long winter. They rely on a scalable and highly reliable public infrastructure for heat, water and power. They don’t even think about the specifications of the power they receive, the quality of natural gas or the availability of water. They count on experts who can provide those services, seamlessly.

“Cloud computing is less expensive, more reliable, more secure and enables a much faster time to innovation”

So, it is natural that the utility industry itself is now embracing the concept of “utility” computing. The cloud’s on-demand computing and standardized tools make it simpler for utilities to run their operations without having to devote resources to building and maintaining IT hardware and software. Much like the services the utility industry provides, public cloud IT infrastructure is more reliable, provides faster time to innovation, and costs less–and key to utility efficiency.

Higher Reliability

Local utilities provide heat, water and power more reliably than a consumer could on his or her own. In much the same way, public cloud computing provides highly available infrastructure with robust backup and disaster recovery capabilities.

Cloud service providers maintain the infrastructure and perform routine maintenance, patching, load balancing and health monitoring for continuous availability. Cloud service providers also bring their massive economies of scale in the areas of technology procurement and IT security. This allows public utilities to focus on running their operations rather than managing and maintaining an IT infrastructure that is not core to their business objectives. Cloud computing also greatly simplifies disaster recovery by automating the replication of data and spreading compute across geographically disparate sites.

Finally, cloud computing provides greater security. According to Vivek Kundra, a former CIO of the United States Government, “Cloud computing is often far more secure than traditional computing because companies like Google and Amazon can attract and retain cybersecurity personnel of a higher quality than many governmental agencies.” Cloud providers have a large investment in infrastructure and processes; robust, dedicated 24/7 security teams, and they can more easily attract key security talent.

The standardized environment in the cloud supports strict security software and standards that can be implemented and enforced across the entire system. Security updates can be rapidly pushed in a cloud environment for continuous deployment of the latest security patches and fixes.

Microsoft, Itron’s cloud provider, spends over $1 billion per year on security. Microsoft Azure is the largest enterprise-grade cloud infrastructure available today and has 47 distinct security certifications and attestations. Microsoft Azure is the industry leader for customer advocacy and rights protection.

Faster Time to Innovation

The speed of innovation with cloud computing puts traditional software development at a serious competitive disadvantage. Software applications can be developed more quickly and reliably in a cloud environment. For utilities, this means getting the software features they need and their customers demand in months instead of years.

A traditional model of IT innovation has relied on teams of software developers building and making those innovations available to customers on set release schedules. The f laws in this model are obvious. We have come a long way from sending floppy disks in the mail. However, this model still introduces large variances and interdependencies. How often does IT staff say that an issue or a feature is fixed or available with a patch or an upgrade?

Cloud platforms provide an immediate and essentially unlimited number of servers, storage and other required infrastructure. The cloud enables software development on a platform-as-a-service (PaaS). Mainstream cloud providers also offer developers a wide variety of “micro-services” that are pre-developed and pre-integrated. This eliminates the need to build these services individually, improves quality and enables agile software development, continuous software delivery and a true DevOps approach to the software lifecycle.

DevOps promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery and ongoing improvement, and it encourages rapid and f lexible response to change. The DevOps model brings together technology developers, testers, support personnel and operations staff to enable continuous development, integration, deployment and feedback. This allows deployment of enhancements and bug fixes into production, or into the hands of users, safely and quickly in a sustainable ongoing way. A cloud platform is essential to enabling this process of rapid innovation and improvement.

Moreover, the cloud allows utilities to quickly aggregate disparate data from multiple sources to enhance analytic outcomes.

Lower Cost

Around the world, utilities are embracing the cloud to take advantage of lower and more predictable operating costs and faster time to benefits. Economies of scale, in hardware, software, and real estate result in significantly lower operating costs.

With cloud computing, utilities can pay for what they need, when they need it. CPU, memory and storage resources can be instantly increased or decreased without any downtime. A public cloud infrastructure eliminates the purchase and provisioning of additional hardware and software when resolving scalability issues or upgrading due to new business or technical requirements.

Moving to the Cloud

In summary, the business benefits of cloud computing utilizing Microsoft Azure are significant. Cloud computing is less expensive, more reliable, more secure and enables a much faster time to innovation. Data centers are replaced with software defined infrastructure with business continuity and disaster recovery built in. Processes can be made standardized and repeatable. Testing can be automated, and with continuous delivery, new features and functionality can be built and deployed quickly.

Cloud computing with Microsoft Azure allows Itron to securely, cost effectively and reliably drive innovation and utilities to quickly bring those innovations to their customers.