Big Data: DTECH’s Topic of the Week

Editor in chief

I just returned from another DistribuTECH Conference & Exhibition. The exhibitors showcased a wide variety of products. Most anything that’s required to reliably move electricity from the power plant to inside consumers’ premises was represented in the exhibit hall.

As I attended conference sessions and visited exhibiting companies, I heard a lot about “big data,” a term that is relatively new to me. I also heard a speaker talk about data in “exabytes” and “zettabytes.” I know Wikipedia is not an authoritative source for research, but for this editorial I thought it would be acceptable for me to use to gain some insight into these terms that are new to me. According to Wikipedia, when used as binary prefixes, exa is 1018 bytes or 1 million terabytes, and zetta is 1021 bytes or 1 billion terabytes. I’ll be honest. I can’t comprehend how much data is in a zettabyte or even an exabyte. I understand, however, why it’s called big data.

Wikipedia defines big data as “datasets that grow so large that they become awkward to work with using on-hand database management tools. Difficulties include capture, storage, search, sharing, analytics and visualizing.” In addition, Wikipedia mentions that the size of “big data” varies depending on the capabilities of the organization managing the set. For some organizations, hundreds of gigabytes of data may require a change to data management options. For others, it may take tens or hundreds of terabytes before a significant change is warranted.

The Department of Energy, whose representatives hosted two panel sessions at DistribuTECH, said that more than 9 million smart meters have been installed in the U.S. and thousands are being added daily. In addition, some 202,000 direct load control devices, 6,500 automated capacitors, 4,300 automated feeder switches, 3,400 automated regulators, 129 phasor measurement units and 26 phasor data concentrators have been installed. These types of installations will continue for years. These devices collect data at intervals and in quantities that utilities haven’t seen before, which is the reason big data, exabyte and zettabyte are now part of our vocabularies.

The electric utility industry is not the first industry to experience the challenges and opportunities that come from big data. Therefore, tried and proven options and solutions for managing, analyzing and reaping the benefits of big data are available to utilities and many were showcased at DistribuTECH.

I suspect it won’t be long before big data is a common term in the industry and a common topic in POWERGRID International. I’m not sure, however, that I’ll ever be able to comprehend the information contained in an exabyte and zettabyte and the other bytes that exceed them. And, yes, according to Wikipedia, there are many prefixes beyond zettabyte. Maybe we’ll hear about those next year at DistribuTECH.

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