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Smart networks & role of GIS

A stitch in time saves nine” — can we use this proverb to highlight the state of our network operations? The answer is a “no”, most of the times. However, network operators are aspiring to incorporate several proactive measures to improve the reliability, adaptability, security, predictability and self-healing aspects of the networks. In other words, they are trying to create “smart networks”. Let us take a closer look at the challenges faced by network operators and how GIS can be used as an enabler for their end state vision of smart networks.

Current state of networks
Network operators generally resort to either preventive maintenance of their networks or restoration after an event. In the absence of effective systems to provide the lead indicators, network operators fall short in their ability to take proactive measures. According to an estimate in 2006, the annual cost of power interruptions in the US is a staggering USD 80 billion. A good share of these interruptions can be attributed to the state of the networks.

Building blocks of smart networks
Utilities (smart grid) and communications (next generation networks) industries are investing heavily to make their networks “smart”.

Any network comprises of sources and sinks (end points) and the supporting infrastructure to facilitate delivery of the commodity. For a telecommunications network, it could be machines exchanging data; or individuals speaking on telephone. For an electrical network, the end points are generating stations and consumers. Similarly for a gas network, it is the storage points or wells and the end consumers.

While this is a simplified view of a network, in reality, several components, systems and stakeholders together constitute the network (Figure 1). A typical electric utility serves more than a million customers while a communications network operator serves several million customers.

These complex networks though are only as good as their weakest link. For these networks to operate with minimal downtime, several components and systems need to perform in symphony, without errors.

Challenges in operating networks
Independent departments perform diverse functions to operate the networks. While the operations division addresses the aspects of delivery reliability, fault repair, maintenance and crew management, finance handles the commercial aspects and the planning, design and engineering divisions ensure that the radial and fixed assets of the network support operations in delivering the commodity. Although all these departments work towards a common goal, the absence of a synchronised view of information pertaining to their network components often results in these functions operating in silos — a recipe for inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

Figure 1: Stakeholders in a network

Deployment of smart electronic devices and the availability of low cost communication bandwidth to haul information across the network is leading to an information explosion. However, this information is seldom being used to take intelligent decisions for network operations.

Since a majority of our networks were built over the past 100 years or even earlier, their components and systems were added incrementally with wide variations in technological maturity. While some of them are state-of-art, several legacy systems and components continue to run the networks across the world.

Advances in communication technologies, increasing awareness to reduce carbon footprint by tapping renewable energy sources, availability of processing power with the miniaturisation of silicon, advancements in storage technologies, standardisation as well as the openness in systems are leading to paradigm shifts in the way networks are operated.

GIS as an enabler for smart networks
In order for network operators to make quick decisions, it is imperative that the information at their disposal is correct, consistent, complete and current across systems. While a GIS system has been traditionally used for network planning and design during the construction phase, it is now increasingly being seen as a foundational system to establish a single source of truth across the network operation. This characteristic is enabling the unification of diverse systems, departments and operations (Figure 2) within the network.

Visualisation of information is another major application of GIS, allowing network operators to analyse the “tsunami of data” that is generated by the components of the network. Traditional schematic views and tables are quite inadequate to handle such large information. GIS however enables the thematic representation of business analytics using colour codes on a map that highlights areas needing focus and rapid action.

Figure 2: GIS as a unifier of systems and information in an enterprise

We are still a long way from realising smart networks. Nonetheless, steps are being initiated in the right earnest to lay the foundation, by incorporating smartness to the components of networks.

Operators need lead indicators to be proactive in dealing with the networks. Technological advances to the network components, such as intelligent devices, are spewing out volumes of information for analysis. Traditional methods are failing to provide operational benefits. It is in this scenario that killer applications developed leveraging the potential of GIS can play a crucial role in creating smart networks.