Cloud computing can offer substantial benefits for utilities, including reduced costs, data security and improved productivity. It’s also a key enabler of digital transformation, modernising the IT architecture and environment, and encouraging digital ways of working.
With utilities accumulating more data than ever, it is becoming more and more difficult for organisations to keep all of their vital information, programs and systems up and running on in-house computer servers.
Cloud computing operates on a similar principle as web-based email clients, allowing users to access all of the features and files of the system without having to keep the bulk of that system on their own computers.
A cloud provider can offer an infinite amount of resources to many users, and divide the costs among those clients to ensure an affordable service for all. This low barrier to entry, along with the pay-per-use model offered by most cloud providers, makes cloud computing very versatile — it is scalable for large corporations and economical for small ones.
Relying on an outside organisation to take care of all IT hosting and infrastructure means you have more time to devote towards the aspects of your business that directly affect your bottom line. Because of the reduced cost and time, utilities can focus their efforts elsewhere, improving efficiency and customer satisfaction.
Cloud providers usually offer 24/7 technical support, with knowledgeable, experienced staff to ensure the system is performing at its optimum level. This is much more cost effective than an organisation having a team of on-site IT people with varied skill sets.
Despite the clear advantages of cloud computing, some utilities are still hesitant to use cloud services.
Morgan Duncan, founder of Utilibill, a cloud-based utility billing software provider, said that security is usually the biggest concern, but most people don’t realise that the traditional, in-house data storage system comes with its own set of risks.
“The most common reason a business is not open to the cloud is a lack of understanding around the benefits of the cloud and the enormous risk of on-premise deployments.
“However, as we progress, Chief Information Officers and business leaders are learning that their biggest risk is actually internal staff and an often lax internal security policy.”
A flexible fit
Not only does cloud computing enable a more flexible and mobile work lifestyle for organisations — with employees able to access data from servers outside the office rather than just hard-wired in-house servers — it provides flexibility in implementing changes and new technologies without high risk and cost.
Mr Duncan said this flexibility and scalability will give utilities that take up cloud computing a strong competitive edge.
“Traditionally, you would acquire hardware ready to cater for up to three years of growth. This meant buying more than you needed at the time to prepare for the future. However, often three years down the track the technology stack and topology have changed,” Mr Duncan said.
“With elastic cloud-based solutions and software defined networking, utilities can use what they need when they need it – potentially scaling up and down resources on-demand and in real time. One example is during heavy load times, such as the generation of bill runs or distribution of bills.
“We provide a number of deployment models for a private cloud solution, however some customers call on Amazon AWS to host meter data and, in some cases, PDF repositories.”
Utilibill’s platform has a number of features to help utilities realise the benefits of cloud computing. There is nothing to install and no upgrades to worry about — everything is done by Utilibill remotely and seamlessly. The platform runs on any browser and field technicians can update meter reads and workflow in real time from any phone or tablet.
“Many utilities come to us just to look after their off-market embedded networks business, which is an area many retail systems don’t address very well as it’s a little less mainstream and has different complexities. Over time, they usually pick up our full retail offering which provides an end-to-end embedded networks solution as well as an on-market retail solution, all on one unified platform,” Mr Duncan said.
“Our platform addresses a number of key issues that retailers are suffering from today, including data redundancy, failover and high availability, along with bandwidth that scales on our software defined network as required, to name a few.
“We have four retailers jumping on at the moment thanks to our fully integrated market system. This could mean the redeployment of entire activation departments in some instances and we have automated a variety of back-office functions.”
Cloud computing allows utilities to securely, cost-effectively and reliably drive innovation, while delivering improved services to their customers.