IP/MPLS-Based Networks Provide Unique Value for Smart Grid Initiatives

Next Generation Communications Blog

IP/MPLS-Based Networks Provide Unique Value for Smart Grid Initiatives

By Beecher Tuttle

Skyrocketing energy demands and the push for greener, more sustainable energy solutions has helped bring smart grids to prominence, and has encourage a number of utilities to deploy a next-generation network alongside their electrical grid.

AltaLink, one of Canada's largest electricity transmission providers, is one of the utilities that is currently undergoing the complex, yet highly advantageous transition from a TDM architecture to a next-generation IP-based network.

In an effort to provide other utilities with a roadmap for the migration, Clinton Struth, principal engineer at AltaLink, and Dr. Marc Maurer, key account manager at Alcatel-Lucent (ALU) recently authored a TechZine article, IP/MPLS-based Networks for Mission-Critical Services, that details some of the benefits and challenges of embracing a smarter network.

AltaLink's initiative was born back in 2007, when the company made the decision to replace their ATM and TDM-based network with a next-generation, packet-based Wide Area Network (WAN). When looking at their options, the company felt that it had two reasonable choices; it could deploy an Internet Protocol/Multi-Protocol Label Switching (IP/MPLS) infrastructure or a next -generation Synchronous Digital Hierarchy/Synchronous Optical Network (SDH/SONET).

When looking at the SDH/SONET option, AltaLink found that it didn't offer as much value as they had hoped, other than its ability to extend the lifespan of the network itself.

IP/MPLS, on the other hand, provides a cost-effective, visually-oriented network management system that enables utilities to provision, manage and operate critical smart grid services as well as the ability to report on their statistics. Couple this with the solution's dynamic bandwidth allocation and the fact that most AltaLink services would likely transition to IP, and AltaLink made their choice.

After evaluating several vendors and completing a series of pilot tests, AltaLink selected its supplier, Alcatel Lucent, in January 2010 and began the rollout a year later.

Now about halfway through the migration, Struth and AltaLink believe the IP/MPLS infrastructure is highly capable of enabling the "better management of the transmission infrastructure to ensure more reliability, safety and cost efficiency."

Struth's confidence in IP/MPLS stems from the fact that the technology overcomes two common doubts:

  • Low latency
  • Cyber security

Some utilities have questioned whether IP/MPLS can meet the strict latency requirements necessary to run an electrical grid. Struth has found this concern to be inaccurate, noting that IP/MPLS has been used to deliver time-sensitive applications like backhauling of mobile data traffic for many years.

As noted in the posting, "IP/MPLS is sometimes and incorrectly still perceived as connection-less IP-technology that can provide very cost-efficient data transport but only with a 'best-effort' like quality of service (QoS)… This is the case for IP only however in contrast, the MPLS part of IP/MPLS makes the solution connection-oriented and capable of multiple guaranteed QoS levels."

As for cyber-security, AltaLink and ALU were able to implement a multi-tier security concept with multiple security layers and intrusion-detection check-points.  This move, which adds full control plane protection, comprehensive password protection and several additional security layers, is enabling the company to align it network security with that of Tier-1 carriers.

"By successfully engineering the network to support critical applications such as SCADA and TPR, this next-generation network can not only replace existing TDM networks but is flexible enough for a smart grid future," the two authors add.

Struth and Maurer offered a few key takeaways from the migration that can help utilities that follow in AltaLink’s footsteps:

  • Personnel:  With a drastically different network in place, employees will need significant technology and equipment training. Either that or operations of the network need to be outsourced. Utilities should plan accordingly.
  • Technology choices:  Struth and Maurer stress that electric utilities should make their technology choice based on the current and future services that they will support. "A technology change for the sake of technology is often the wrong approach," they note. "Depending on the type and size of the utility, other technologies might be more suitable."
  • Strong partnering relationships:   Essential for success.

While much of the attention of smart grid deployments has been on the benefits for consumers and electric utilities in terms of things like customer control and choice and utility efficiency and eco-sustainability, the next generation communications infrastructure to enable smart grid benefits to be fully realized is a critical piece of the story.  And, as AltaLink’s example shows, IP/MPLS - based networks are a core part of ensuring utility communications infrastructures are up to the challenge. 

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