Connected utilities: Five IT priorities for energy suppliers

For energy suppliers, empowering users to manage their consumption using smartphones and tablets is fast becoming a differentiator in the largely commodity-based utilities market. Suppliers, marketers and consumers will all benefit from the data that connected devices capture.

There will be a greater understanding of consumer behaviour and the ability to recommend personalised services and products. With such high stakes, what are energy suppliers doing to ensure the successful roll out of smart energy devices? The competitive pressure is huge as utilities already take pole position in the machine to machine (M2M) market.

According to mobile phone giant Vodafone, in its latest M2M barometer report, 20% of utilities and energy firms 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 connected security systems

However, for many energy suppliers, especially large companies with extensive legacy IT systems, the connected smart home and M2M is a new and ambitious frontier

Utility companies already have plenty on their IT agendas, in particular modernising CRM and billing systems, and also many operational and provisioning systems. The connected home adds many more challenges, not least integration with core systems, communications, and security and usability for consumers

Five priorities when developing connected energy devices There are a number of priority areas when developing connected home applications for utilities:

1. Get the software quality right

Quality is now playing an increasingly important role in developing applications that meet deadlines and deliver the best customer value. In software quality circles, we talk of agile approaches and "shifting left" to introduce quality and testing earlier in the project development lifecycle. These can be a major change in mind-set for in-house software teams, but we believe that a software quality programme is especially important in new application areas with complex integration needs and the involvement of consumers, and also of regulators in some applications

2. Keep the customer happy

Consumers will be using smart energy devices every day and so user interfaces and usability are especially critical for the roll out of connected devices and home energy applications. As with applications such as controlling thermostats from smartphones, thorough acceptance testing of the user interface is vital.

Real home environments vary widely and utilities need to be confident that their devices will work in most homes: test labs can be used to replicate common variables such as wireless signal strength and meter location.

3. Recognise the Big Data challenge

The huge volume of meters and data generated presents a 'big data’ challenge, as smart meters can take readings as often as every 30 minutes rather than the current monthly cycle for ‘dumb’ meters. This means that integration and testing of non-functional performance and operational acceptance testing of billing and data analysis suites is essential

4. Integrate core IT systems

CRM and billing are at the heart of utility company operations, and here the usual terminology – ‘end-to-end’ integration – really is important. The last thing a utility company wants is to lose the immense value that new apps and mobile communications can bring. The smooth integration of core IT systems and customer communications is critical. Also on the agenda is the provisioning and installation of smart meters, which will lead to workforce management and operational changes that affect suppliers and their ability to roll out millions of meters effectively

5. Recognise the complexity of end-to-end testing

Testing needs to be robust, end-to-end and conducted in both lab and live environments. If user interfaces and systems are not consistent then processes could easily fail - just one of the reasons why there may be concern from consumers. Hardware issues can be more difficult to solve than software problems and fixes can take longer to implement, so testing needs to take into account these differences

There are other concerns in the picture, such as security and resilience, which also have to be addressed as part of the quality regime. And this isn’t just about energy applications, which are just the start of a major opportunity in the connected home. Those energy companies that get it right with a flexible, fast development platform will have all manner of business opportunities open to them.

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

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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