Utilities won’t let software glitches risk connected device roll-outs

Utility companies, and energy suppliers in particular, have an unprecedented opportunity today to get closer to customers. The rapidly expanding home automation and M2M (machine to machine) markets give suppliers a new route to improving customer engagement and value.

The smart meter programme and the growing use of smart home devices, such as smartphone-controlled thermostats, also present an opportunity to move beyond the utility companies’ core business. With such strong business prospects, utilities are working hard to ensure that they minimise risk at this critical time

A connected devices strategy is being embraced by major utility firms such as British Gas, which has already rolled out 1.4 million smart meters in the UK, and is also experiencing success with its Hive smartphone-controlled thermostat application.

The company’s ambition was summed up recently at the Smart Energy conference in London by Nina Bhatia, commercial director, who said: “You might ask, does an energy company have the right or the capability to move into the connected home? The answer is emphatically yes – perhaps the boundaries between what we have thought of as an energy company are changing.”

Vodafone's M2M barometer report confirms the interest – 20% of utilities and energy firms it surveyed have now adopted smart grid and smart metering systems, and 17% have also introduced smart home and office offerings — a category that includes home automation, intelligent heating and security systems

There are major challenges though for companies when developing applications – these include implementation of apps and software on new devices; integration across networks to company operations and billing systems; and sheer scale. On the latter issue, the rollout target for the UK’s smart meter programme is to replace 53 million conventional domestic power and gas meters in about 30 million premises by 2020 – Britain’s biggest home energy technology change for more than 40 years.

One of the key issues at stake is user acceptance and experience of new home automation technology. Once consumers install devices such as smart thermostats, they will expect operation to be at least as reliable as existing mechanical or electrical timers. With rollouts of smartphone and tablet controlled devices now underway, dangers lie not just in initial hardware and operating software but in regular updates, which could break functionality owing to inadequate testing or unforeseen design problems.

Also of concern is security – a recent study by Hewlett-Packard (HP) has found that the majority (70%) of connected devices it tested have vulnerabilities, including a smart thermostat, although they didn’t name names. www.vitispr.com 1 Offerings from Nest – owned by Google – and those building on Apple’s new HomeKit tools for iOS, will be essential to integrate into open home automation systems, given the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets running these operating systems.

The learning curve for utilities could be steep. They are moving quickly from a world where there was limited connectivity between home and company from an IT perspective to the complexity of fast-developing multiple platforms. All this without the usual luxury of implementing only proprietary technology with legacy systems.

Those legacy billing, operations and customer relationship management (CRM) systems are often themselves the subject of customer concern given mistakes and delays. Now they must be upgraded and tested to cope with a flood of ‘big data’ in the smart meter and home automation markets – consider the massive amount of data that will be incoming from smart meter readings every half-hour from millions of premises, and also the provisioning and updates of devices

Even with a licence granted to run the Data and Communications Company (DCC), responsible for linking smart meters in homes and small businesses with the business systems of energy suppliers, energy firms are concerned.

For example, as Neil Pennington, smart programme director at RWE npower, said recently at an industry seminar: “Testing must be robust – end-to-end across industry parties and the DCC, and in live situations. If interoperability is not consistent and systems and processes not failsafe, it risks undermining consumer confidence.”

With so much at stake, the stage is set, we believe, for more interest in the improvement of quality in connected device programmes. There is already a drive to adopt agile development and also “shift quality left”, by conducting testing as early as possible in the software development cycle. Shifting left leads to earlier defect detection and reduces the cost of development

In particular, we have found that the usability of devices is critical, especially as many will be new to the market. A test lab that simulates real-world use is one approach to ensuring that software glitches do not appear, as is a ‘quality barometer’ that reports throughout the testing programme.

Companies are also likely to trial devices with selected customers to improve the test lifecycle by ensuring that usability and functionality are optimised in the home environment ahead of full launch. When rolling out trials, careful planning and consideration is required as the results are highly valuable if they identify defects that cannot be detected in a test lab environment.

The multivendor, mixed hardware/software environment of the smart meter programme, in particular, requires testing coordination and risk management of a high order, given the government’s interest in the programme and the past experience with other high profile IT projects, such as the NHS IT system.

Nina Bhatia clearly recognise these challenges – “I am recruiting software engineers, user experience designers and data scientists from Nasa,” she said. Ensuring everything comes together does indeed require a good deal of ‘rocket science’.

Posted by Angus Panton, Director of Power and Communications at software quality specialist, SQS Group

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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