December 11, 2019

Why Less is More with AMI

Chris Bui

Chris Bui

Managing Director, AMI and Smart Metering

For years, utilities have asked why they can’t just integrate their advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) solutions directly with their Customer Information Systems (CISs). In 2007, I thought the same way. I was then a solution architect working at SAP, implementing SAP Customer Relationship & Billing solution (CR&B) for large, complex utilities that were among the first to fully implement AMI.

At the time, communication technologies had not evolved quite enough, and there was much to do to figure out how to “hook up” the technology to the downstream billing engine. That’s when SAP formed its AMI Lighthouse Council comprised of its own SAP CR&B experts, a number of forward-thinking utilities, and a few of the top MDM vendors.

Over a period of 3 years, we periodically gathered together to argue, debate, and eventually agree upon an integration standard between SAP CR&B and the market leading meter data management solutions. During that same time period, the U.S. government—ever mindful of business and technology trends—approved an economic stimulus package to encourage utilities to participate in smart grid deployments. In support of that effort, SAP set a goal to make it easier and less costly for utilities to implement AMI technologies, and sought to encourage the widespread adoption of the SAP AMI Lighthouse Council integration standard, which SAP refers to as the Meter Data Unification and Synchronization (MDUS) integration standard.

In 2012, I brought my SAP Lighthouse Council experience to Utegration, recruited several other industry veterans, and worked as part of the team that delivered the first of several SAP MDUS integration projects for utilities across North America. Fast forward to today, and Utegration has led 8 SAP AMI integration projects in 5 years—as many as or perhaps more than even the largest system integrators during the same time period!

Looking back, I would say that the MDUS integration standard—with its accompanying 3-tier AMI architectural model—was absolutely the right solution approach for that time. Often in response to industry and regulatory pressures, utilities planned to jump on the AMI train as quickly as possible. The established MDM products were required to accommodate the immediate business need generated by the momentum for smart grid and by the stimulus legislation. And the next statement may raise a few eyebrows, but it is my personal view that the MDUS approach was in fact a marriage of convenience.

That marriage was necessary at the time, but the overall architecture—comprised of separate head end systems, meter data management platforms, and CIS solutions—saddled utilities with a lot of complexity and cost, which has made it difficult for utilities to do what should be done…that is, to treat their AMI-driven business processes as an asset that is worth maintaining and evolving over time, even as new regulatory or business requirements emerge, or as technologies change. As a consequence, the 3-tier AMI architectural model places an artificially low ceiling on the potential for AMI to transform organizations.

How to Get the AMI Value We All Envisioned

How can we break through this ceiling? Simply put…put your CIS and MDM platforms together! In truth, AMI data is somewhat useless without commercial data to provide much-needed business context. Segregating these data universes in separate solutions (in the mode of the traditional 3-tier AMI architectural model) is extremely limiting. I have seen these limitations play out on various industry projects; for example, one request to do something incremental with the MDM spurs sometimes circular discussions among the key stakeholders, which often halts progress because the posited functional improvement requires new custom interfaces and /or other changes that present an undesired change management hurdle, all of which halts progress in its tracks. After years of articulating the business case for making needed functional improvements, I have concluded that a 3-tier AMI architecture is cumbersome at best, offering limited potential to break through that artificial ceiling that holds us back from realizing the promised vision for our investment in AMI technology.

To address that obstacle, MDMs embedded in the CIS platform (“embedded MDMs”) are just now emerging, well over a decade since we debated the merits of that model in the SAP Lighthouse Council. This combined technology ushers in a new era for the simpler, 2-tier AMI architectural model, and renewed potential for continuous optimization of AMI-driven business processes. In my opinion, this combined solution will forever change how utilities solution for AMI and Smart Grid.

The embedded MDM is something I’ve had the privilege to help bring to market here at Utegration, with the launch of our MeterData4U™ solution. Our team of SAP and utility industry experts have created what we knew was needed: an MDM solution embedded within SAP CR&B. MeterData4U is not a separate, stand-alone MDM product that must be orchestrated with an additional, standalone technology stack; rather, it is an add-on solution from Utegration which is embedded within the SAP CR&B solution that you already own. I should probably state this one more time for effect: the MDM solution resides within the SAP CIS, which is the key to the power that it delivers. It handles the core meter data management functions better than other MDMs because it unites two separate systems (MDM and CIS) that in reality are extremely dependent upon one another, removing the headaches associated with keeping these systems well integrated and maintained.

I can imagine my IT readers nodding their heads as they read this, for the benefits of simplified technology are inherently clear. To further the conversation, what does the business need to know about this approach to AMI? That an embedded MDM provides benefits that standalone MDMs simply can’t deliver:

  • Optimized business processes–AMI is nothing if it doesn’t provide a boost to your business processes related to meter-to-cash, customer services, and infrastructure management. Most of these business processes are conducted within your ERP and CIS systems. When the MDM and CIS solutions are kept separate, the potential to improve your business processes is very limited because the systems are managed and maintained separately, often by two separate organizations, making improvement opportunities inherently more difficult to identify, prioritize and implement. MeterData4U unites the business functions that deserve the closest integration to yield the most efficient business processes.
  • Happier, more productive workforce—Because the solution hosts MDM capabilities within SAP, your business users aren’t forced to learn and live with two data models, two sets of terminology, and two sets of screens and transactions required to carry out their daily activities. Additionally, they are spared from the hand-offs between two different systems and the resulting delays that can kill productivity and degrade customer service.
  • Significantly lower total cost of ownership (TCO)—An embedded MDM design has profound implications to your organization not only in terms of the enhanced business capabilities that it delivers but also in terms of the total cost of ownership. Traditional 3-tier architectures involves more complexity that requires intensive care and upkeep in perpetuity. Master and transactional data must be continually synchronized to keep these other MDMs relevant, and upgrade cycles for all of the different technology stacks means that your organization will be continuously testing to determine whether patches broke the data synchronizations and overall integration.

    What this means is that you pay not just for the separate technology stacks themselves, including software maintenance and hardware, but also for the upkeep of that architecture, which creates an ongoing drain on available application budget and organizational energy. Conversely, with its unified and simplified architecture, the embedded MDM represents the most effective use of corporate funds to drive AMI-related benefits.

At last, today’s AMI technology and related solutions have finally caught up with the vision associated with our initial investments in smart meters and AMI technology. While legacy MDM systems carry forward outdated functionality and cost to be borne by utilities that are aiming to implement AMI, utilities now have a better option. An embedded MDM embodies the way that meter data management systems “might have been” if the technology had existed in 2007. The fact that the MDM and CIS reside together not only helps to lower TCO associated with AMI technology, it also helps your utility derive maximum value out of your investment in SAP CR&B.

Now that it is here, let’s boldly explore how this solution can deliver value for your utility.