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Cisco taps into smart grid money machine

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Cisco has developed a new router and switch pair in an attempt to cash in on the growing interest in — and money-making potential of — "smart" electrical power grids.

You may not think that this whole smart grid thing that IBM, Cisco Systems, and a bunch of other IT players have been pushing is all that big of a deal. But governments the world over are looking for somewhere to spend cash to stimulate the economy, and there's a chance that every utility pole could end up having a router or switch on it in rural areas, and the electrical grid buried in urban areas will need a similarly large number of IP devices to provide telemetry.

Now you can see why networking giant Cisco Systems is rubbing its hands together in anticipation of smart infrastructure. This is a market that — at least until we decipher the ravings of Nikola Tesla — cannot go wireless. And that's why Cisco is designing special versions of its routers and switches that can sit in the rugged environments of the electric power grid.

Laura Ipsen, general manager of Cisco's Smart Grid division, says that the electricity grids of the world have some telemetry that is passed back and forth between transmission and distribution parts of the networks and the power plants that create the juice. But a lot of that communication is only point-to-point, two-way talking between specific devices. Smart grid projects will take that communication to the next level.

Smart grids aren't just about putting in smart meters and letting people see how much money they're burning. They're also about wrapping the grid in an IP network that allows communication across the power grid and between power grids that are networked to share juice. Right now, what communication there is on power grids is siloed, like data centers and their applications decades ago before IP conquered everything.

To get started selling specialized networking gear to power companies and their transmission and distribution (T&D in the lingo) partners, Cisco is putting two machines — a router and a switch — out in the field. In this case, literally as well as figuratively.

The Cisco Connect Grid Router, known as the CGR 2010, and the Connect Grid Switch, the CGS 2520, may be derived from commercial ISR routers (more than 8 million sold) and Catalyst switches Cisco sells to data centers and service providers, but these smart-grid puppies have to be able to cope with electrical surges and strong magnetic fields, and to operate in temperatures ranging from -40 to 140 F° (-40 to 60 C°). The machines come with either AC or DC power supplies and have no moving parts — in the field, you know a moving part like a fan is going to fail.

The CGR 2010 router and CGS 2050 switches were specifically designed to be housed in power substations, and they can tie into the physical security (such as video surveillance) that is on premise. Like other Cisco products, these two boxes have intelligent routing, so they can redirect traffic in the event of outages on the IP network, and Cisco expects that power companies will plunk one or two routers and one or two switches in each substation.

Ipsen says that the typical electric distributor in the United States or Europe has from 400 to 800 substations, so that may not sound like a lot of switches for Cisco to sell. But there are smaller substations and often secondary distributors in the grid, and eventually there will be routers and switches pushed further out into the electricity grid on the tops of utility poles. This is where the money starts rolling in. (Cisco is not announcing pole top switches or routers today.) The point is, the number of connected devices on the world's power grids is big — Cisco has joked that the smart electric grid could be larger than the Internet.

One may even take the joke a bit further and suggest that maybe the power grid should be the Internet. More than a few have tried routing IP traffic on the power grid. But smart grids are not being designed to send IP over electric wires, but rather to have a separate IP network for controlling the power grid, for security and management reasons.

The CGR 2010 is designed for a 15-year tour of duty in the substation, and comes with four slots that support Gigabit Ethernet routing using fiber or copper links. The machines can encapsulate the SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) protocol commonly used in embedded control systems and send it out over the IP network. The device supports the IEC 61850-3 standard from the International Electrotechnical Commission, which governs the gear inside of electrical substations, and the related IEEE 1613 standard, which is a testing regimen for communications gear inside of substations.

The CGS 2050 switch meets the same standards, and comes in two flavors: one has 24 10/100Mb ports with two Gigabit Ethernet uplinks, and the other comes with six 100Mb ports, eight 10/100Mb ports, and two Gigabit Ethernet ports. They can be used as a high-end Layer 3 or a Layer 2 switch.

The CGR 2010 router will be available in July, while the CGS 2050 switch will come out in August. Pricing information was not divulged. ®

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