Asset Tracking

Future Networks

March 1, 2008 By: Patrick Esposito, Augusta Systems Inc. Sensors

The next generation of networks will move beyond disconnected device-specific networks and systems and toward a distributed infrastructure, with intelligent functions residing across the entire network, from its edge to its core.


As enterprises push their networks to integrate more and more processes and functions, such as advanced monitoring, automation, security, and asset tracking, they consistently encounter a common challenge—the integration of data and control functions from an increasing number of diverse sensors and devices. Although many enterprises have embraced the need to connect sensors and other edge assets to their IT networks, the means of doing so remains either too limited or too complex to effectively integrate, process, and correlate the data from, and communicate with, these devices.

The Challenge
The challenge lies in the device-centric (as opposed to network-centric) nature of both legacy and emerging edge-asset deployments. Sensors, actuators, wireless sensor networks, RFID systems, imagery devices, and other edge-of-network systems and devices are often vendor or protocol specific. Integration of data from these assets requires unique or specialized interfaces and applications, including middleware limited to certain devices, vendors, or protocols. An enterprise can successfully use Vendor A's sensors and middleware to integrate data into its network, but it then faces a tough task in trying to integrate and correlate sensor and other edge-asset data from other vendors' devices.

The burden of integrating edge-asset data rests on the enterprise. Under these constraints, enterprise engineers and developers can either accept the shortcomings of vendor-specific end-to-end systems, write customized code to develop interfaces and applications each time a sensor or other device is added to an existing network, or apply both. If the first option is chosen, the opportunity to advance dynamic applications relying on data from disparate devices may be lost. If enterprises pursue the second or third options, the result can be a significant waste of time and resources on the development, testing, and deployment of customized software code and middleware components.

The status quo also impacts the deployment of edge assets. With the often problematic integration of data or control functions, the idea of extending the network infrastructure and intelligent applications to the level of these devices has been, to date, judged impractical. Often, edge assets exist within device-specific systems, isolated from the enterprise IT infrastructure and outside of the IP network. Enterprises are left with devices that can be deployed in the field, but that are entirely removed from the enterprise network.

Even if edge assets can be integrated into the network, convergence without intelligence has its drawbacks. Attempts to integrate edge data without processing and correlation can overwhelm the bandwidth of networks, especially wireless networks. In addition, the volume of data received by the enterprise—without processing, notifications, and automated event-based actions—can overwhelm end users. These capacity shortcomings create bottlenecks, lead to inefficient networks, and tax enterprise personnel.

Overcoming the Challenge
Some enterprises are breaking free from these constraints and moving toward open, scalable intelligent networks. These infrastructures will help enterprises reap greater benefits from both their network and their edge assets.

This new type of network moves beyond disconnected device-specific networks and systems and toward a network of networks. The next-generation enterprise network will also be distributed and intelligent, with processing capabilities and intelligent functions residing not only on centralized network servers and office workstations but also spread across the entire network, from the edge of the network to its core.

In the new unified network, data from edge assets are integrated and correlated in the field and converged with the enterprise network to power dynamic enterprise systems and applications. The new paradigm delivers more efficient business operations, increased return on investment, and decreased total cost of ownership.

The next-generation network takes the burden of edge-asset integration, processing, correlation, and communication functions from the enterprise and places it on the middleware and other software applications deployed throughout the network on gateways, network appliances, servers, routers, and other hardware. By making the network application-aware, the enterprise embeds and distributes intelligence throughout the infrastructure. This means focusing more on the needs of the enterprise and the capacity of the network and less on the restrictions of vendor- or protocol-specific devices and the associated information silos (Figure 1).

 

Click for larger image Figure 1. A next-generation network, with applications that support an open infrastructure deployed on servers, workstations, and intelligent network appliances to power dynamic enterprise and desktop applications (Click image for larger version)

The Secret Is in the Interface
Device-, vendor-, and protocol-agnostic middleware and other software applications, embedded throughout the network and on network-connected devices, will power the next-generation network. With built-in support for rich integration methods, open-network technologies are not constrained by the usual cross-protocol communications problems. These technologies will be able to integrate data from a wide range of sources, including:

  • Existing databases and data files
  • TCP- or UDP-based devices
  • Serial port-based devices
  • Web services-based devices
  • Devices with features and functions accessible via managed or unmanaged calls

In addition to these integration methods, next-generation network software will also support the following capabilities:

  • Protocol/format encoding and decoding
  • Complex event processing
  • Low-level event processing for notifications and alerts
  • Data correlation and fusion
  • Event- and policy-based actions
  • Bidirectional communications for monitoring, control, and automation functions

Simply put, intelligent convergence applications—supported by a unified middleware platform or built with standardized components in an integrated development environment—can distribute data to, and exercise control over, multiple network devices and applications via standard communications protocols. This reduces, and in some cases eliminates, the need for separate middleware or the development of front-end and back-end code for edge-asset networks and control systems.

Allegheny Power's Intelligent Network
These technologies allow enterprises to streamline development, monitoring, management, and customization of extensible control systems and edge asset networks. Consider the case of Allegheny Power, a utility that delivers electric service to more than 1.5 million customers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia.

Recently, the utility began a pilot project to upgrade its distribution system, which included the deployment of smart meters, devices that enable more accurate tracking of electricity usage. As the company planned the meter deployment, it tried to maximize its previous investments in sensors and other edge assets, which had existed outside of its IT network. The utility sought to integrate both new and legacy assets using a common communications backbone. To achieve these goals, the company decided to implement a communications infrastructure that supported circuit-level monitoring and response from a diverse network of sensors, actuators, devices, and smart meters. As envisioned, this network would:

  • Integrate data from smart meters, energy management systems, sensors, actuators, and other edge devices and systems
  • Support protocol conversion and data transformation (including convergence of data from ZigBee, 900 MHz, or stand-alone sensors or actuators into IP-based WiFi and WiMax networks)
  • Support distributed, edge-of-network processing capabilities, such as complex event processing, event filtering, event notification, and data correlation
  • Enable distribution of data from and control over edge devices
  • Provide an application server for future implementations of autonomous system algorithms

Allegheny Power believed the best way to cost-effectively achieve such an infrastructure would be to use intelligent networking technologies. From a network architecture perspective, the network entails two principal elements:

  • WiFi mesh access points or WiMax base stations, providing a self-healing wireless communications backbone with back-haul capability
  • Network appliances, equipped with vendor- and protocol-agnostic middleware and software applications, to serve as clients in both WiFi mesh and WiMax deployments and provide the connectivity for non-WiFi and non-WiMax devices to connect into the WiFi mesh or WiMax backbone

For this effort, Allegheny Power selected network appliances and the associated middleware from Augusta Systems (see sidebar "Next-Generation Network Building Blocks"). In the intelligent network, the Augusta Systems appliances act as supercharged gateways for collecting data from and effecting control over smart meters, sensors, and actuators throughout the distribution circuits and at substations. The appliances serve as client devices and enable non-WiFi and non-WiMax devices to connect to the network backbone.

With the combined power of a WiFi mesh or WiMax backbone and the intelligent appliances, the network provides a mechanism to route data and control instructions among assets. The architecture allows the utility to extend the enterprise IP network and IT infrastructure to reach the field-level distribution circuits (Figure 2). As a result, the infrastructure optimizes distribution assets and minimizes operations and maintenance expenses.

 

Click for larger image Figure 2. A next-generation network applied to an electricity distribution system, enabling intelligent automation and advanced monitoring applications (Click image for larger version)

Allegheny Power is using this new approach in intelligent automation and advanced monitoring. In intelligent automation, the network will support circuit-level monitoring and response, including self-healing features in the event of power outages. Once fully deployed, the network will feature an autonomous, self-healing system consisting of reclosers and switches, state-of-the-art sensors, and system automation software. The system, installed on two 12.5 kV electrical distribution feeders, will dynamically collect data from the feeders and, in case of a fault, will isolate the fault and restore some or all electrical service by tapping adjacent feeders in real-time without manual intervention from system operators.

The WiFi mesh infrastructure will enable point-to-multipoint communications through the deployment of WiFi mesh-enabled intelligent network appliances and WiFi mesh access points. The mesh networking will support continuous connections and reconfiguration around broken or blocked paths by hopping from node to node until the desired destination is reached. The self-healing nature of the wireless communications infrastructure means the network will continue to operate even with a node or connection breaks down. Allegheny Power will be able to automatically detect, analyze, respond to, and restore malfunctioning grid elements or network sections.

In another planned deployment, Allegheny Power will monitor remote segments of the distribution system, including substations, distribution lines, and smart meters. The monitoring system will consist of the network, current transducers, transformer health-monitoring sensors (including fluid level and temperature monitoring), and smart meters.

The edge assets deployed across the network enable synchronized monitoring of system health parameters. The devices can transmit data at scheduled intervals or upon a triggering event (e.g., no current on a line) to a centralized data-collection and data-processing point. Here the system can merge data from multiple units, analyze potentially harmful combinations of data, compress them, and transmit them back to the central power system monitoring location, which can instantaneous notify designated personnel of user-defined alarm conditions.

Looking Forward
An open infrastructure coupled with distributed intelligence provides the capacity for next-generation networks, which integrate data from the edge of the network to the core. By implementing these approaches and technologies, Allegheny Power and other enterprises have transcended traditional integration costs and network-capacity limitations.

Next-generation networks will feature vendor- and protocol-agnostic middleware and software applications, eliminating the limitations of stand-alone systems and laborious integration efforts. Intelligent networks represent the future of enterprise IT.


Next-Generation Network Building Blocks

Augusta Systems provides a number of building blocks for next-generation enterprise networks. These include:

  • SensorBridge— A suite of Microsoft Visual Studio software components that enables you to build and manage intelligent networks, systems, and applications in an integrated development environment
  • EdgeFrontier—A remotely configurable middleware solution that delivers integration, processing, correlation, distribution, and control throughout the network
  • SensorPort—A reconfigurable network appliance, powered by a customized version of EdgeFrontier, that enables distributed, intelligent processing at the edge of the network


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