The digital transformation shows many facets of change. It is especially challenging for utility service providers, as they have to introduce smart grid technologies such as renewables and distributed generation. They are also forced to speed up network transition to packet-data networks while still needing to maintain and operate an established communications network.
Caught in this dual role, the game changer for network transition and operation will be how electric utilities join forces to achieve a fine balance between the demand for introducing new technologies, intense competition, governmental regulations and own organizational change.
Utility providers managing wide area communications networks with thousands of miles of cables going in many different directions face the costly challenge of managing a complex heterogeneous network with a wide variety of technologies across different vendors. In this case, handling network expansions and network transition becomes difficult to manage and even more problematic to plan; as highest availability standards must still be respected in a merging network. Since each case data needs to be manually collected and analyzed, the lacking multi-vendor and multi-technology documentation often creates additional expenditures and unnecessary logistical obstacles. This indefensible and costly matter will only slow down processes and progress. Clearly, for any network operations manager caught in a similar situation, a solution is needed.
Though this may sound too easy at first, the key is not to store essential information on active and passive network components across different systems. Rather, they should be documented within a central database to give network operations managers and expansion planners the possibility to literally see their communications network end-to-end in conjunction with service resources. This opens entirely new possibilities and makes analyzing the network an easier task.
Recently, NetCom BW, subsidiary of Germany’s third-largest utility provider, had to face the challenge of making reduced network complexity a reality. They operate a large area network of over 6,200 miles of fiber optic cable spanning across approximately 1,500 locations with a focus on working closely with communities. Their infrastructure is primarily used to control their self-owned energy and gas networks, though they offer additional communication services for residential customers, carriers with large bandwidths up to 10gb per second, and business customers, such as data center interconnections with high redundancy requirements.
Originally, NetCom BW was attempting to manage a complex, heterogeneous network with a wide variety of tech, such as WDM, PDH, SDH, and MLPS across multiple vendors. This made planning, managing, and handling network outages difficult, as they had to try to give proper attention to each of these suppliers’ individual, proprietary systems. There was no documentation for a multi-vendor and multi-tech environment. The existing system architecture caused the storage of essential information in different systems and as resultmajor processes became laggard and time consuming. This resulted in the increased possibility of potentially detrimental oversight. Not to mention that their processes slowed down as costs of operating and maintaining multiple systems on a recurring basis also began to rise significantly.
Seeking to overcome these challenges, NetCom BW sought a solution that would increase the flexibility and agility of their network operations. The challenge wasn’t managing the communications network, but enabling the processes behind it and supporting data exchange with third-party systems.
During the evaluation phase, NetCom BW fully realized the benefits of a continuous database as they were able to gain new insights on their data and its quality. They also began to see the possibilities standardizing all pre-existing systems made possible, and were able to systematically reduce the number of operating systems to better manage assets and resources.
By consolidating most of their technological siloes under a single, centralized database, NetCom BW could more easily identify all the services and customers that depend on individual cable connections or are running over specific cards or nodes. Although the consolidation into a single data base took a while, the project replaced the effortful day by day collection and verification of its accuracy.
Having a complete view of all services and connections in one system allows the utility provider to view these processes through a singular, transparent window. This sounds more desirable than constantly jumping back and forth between different systems to manage the different technological demands of various clients. Let’s not forget that many of these systems were likely never designed to be completely compatible with one another in the first place.
Through such a database, a network operations manager can also visualize business-relevant data pertaining to individual connections, such as if there is a spare route available for a connection in case of downtime or outage in another part of the network. In NetCom BW’s case, they exponentially boosted their service quality and efficiency when planning maintenance windows with automatic what-if analysis included with their redundancy view on both the physical and logical level.
As you probably already know, cutting downtime is critical, but it is not always easy to do so. That can be said especially when a network operations manager could be trying to keep up with balancing different parts of the network on different systems without a centralized database to govern it all. When NetCom BW implemented a coherent hub for its network, they had cut down their process time to plan maintenance windows to less than an hour. That reduced the planning of maintenance windows by almost 95 percent. This was because they were able to easily and immediately identify the services and the endpoints affected by an outage. This additionally enabled them to avoid SLA breaches.
In the case of an outage, having a centralized database not only allows utility providers to identify which portions of the network are affected in a more time-efficient manner, but it also makes the source of unexpected outages easier to track. There is no fishing for answers through different systems to find where the culprit cable is hiding. In an ideal setting, the database system should also have the ability for the operations manager to either communicate directly or as part of an integrated incident management solution to affected customers to notify them of any error in the network and when they can expect it to be back up and running.
Not only did NetCom BW successfully remedy an existing problem, but they also had positioned themselves to operate more efficiently in the wake of future technological changes. A centralized data hub that manages new and existing systems within a utility network allows for managers to more easily adopt new technologies and document them in with the rest. As the world becomes increasingly more digital, the demand for technological changes and enhancements will only increase and bear down more heavily on utility providers.
Eventually, the demand will become too great to continue managing through siloed-off, propriety systems. Network transparency will be a must and not a plus. It’s time to prepare for imminent digitization.
About the Author
Ulrich SchÃ¤lling is Head of Business Line Networks at FNT Software. In this role, he is responsible for the strategy and the business with FNT’s innovative software products in the Telecommunications market. Before joining FNT, he has been working in various roles at Alcatel-Lucent in the OSS and system integration business. He holds a Master’s Degree in electrical engineering and has 25 years of experience in the Telecommunications market.