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Grid computing project pays off for utilities industry

Cellnet+Hunt is using an Oracle Grid Computing infrastructure to help improve service at more than 500 electric, gas and water utilities.

Cellnet+Hunt is using Oracle Grid Computing infrastructure to deliver wireless metering capabilities and other services to North American gas, electric and water utilities.

But before it was deemed a success, the ambitious grid computing project presented Cellnet+Hunt's IT team with some unique challenges to overcome.

Headquartered in Atlanta, Ga., Cellnet+Hunt provides wireless metering, energy efficiency, and infrastructure communication systems to more than 500 utilities worldwide. The company first turned to grid computing in 2005 when it became clear that a plan to introduce two-way metering technology would lead to a huge increase in the amount of data coming in and out of its network operations center in Kansas City, Mo.

"We had a two-way network before where we were always in contact with the network infrastructure, but now, with the two-way meters, there is a lot more data that the meters can bring back," said Letha McLaren, services general manager at Cellnet+Hunt. "It's about 10 times the amount of data, depending on the meter."

To meet the expected spike in demand, Cellnet+Hunt worked with Oracle consultants to build a four-node grid that today consists of Oracle Database 10g, Oracle Real Application Clusters (RAC), Oracle Automatic Storage Management (ASM) and Oracle Enterprise Manager 10g (OEM) running on dual-core Sun Microsystems Sun Fire V890 servers and the Solaris 9 Operating System.

As a result of the project, Cellnet+Hunt is now able to provide higher levels of application availability while offering increased redundancy and quick access to key utility usage metrics like off-cycle reads, usage monitoring, dynamic pricing, tamper alerts, and outage and restoration notification, company officials said. As data volumes continue to grow, Cellnet+Hunt will scale the grid by adding more nodes.

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The grid computing infrastructure has also improved how the company makes use of technological resources. Company officials say they've decreased the number of servers needed to support customers by two-thirds, and that has led to reduced complexity and better manageability.

The company uses OEM to monitor and administer the performance of applications running on the grid while using ASM to automate and streamline storage management.

"We read about 17 million meters in the U.S. in a services capacity, which means that we have about 20 customers throughout the U.S. who we actually do the meter-reading for," McLaren said. "[Grid computing is helping to support how] we collect the information, process the information and pass it back to the utility."

The challenges

Prior to the implementation, Cellnet+Hunt was using 12 standalone Oracle databases to process data. And re-architecting the layout of those databases proved challenging as the project progressed. DBAs with the firm also had to ensure solid application performance throughout the project.

"We had to look at the applications to make sure that they worked in an RAC environment," said Balaji Subramanian, DBA supervisor for Cellnet+Hunt. "[To do this] we worked with Oracle's RAC Pack consultants."

The company also had to make sure it continued to meet tough service-level agreements throughout the implementation.

"Our service contracts are very driven around reliability," McLaren said. "We have to deliver all of the information within a certain period of time to a certain degree of performance -- usually 99.something percent."

Sage advice

Anyone taking on a grid computing project should remember the importance of paying attention to sizing concerns, particularly as they relate to hardware, Subramanian said.

That means understanding exactly how many CPUs are needed before starting any consolidation process.

"If you are working on a standalone database and moving to the grid technology, sizing is a [big concern]," he said. "It's a key part of the grid implementation."

Licensing improvements?

Cellnet+Hunt, an Oracle partner, also resells some Oracle products as part of an "end-to-end metering solution." And between the partnership agreement and the grid computing initiative, there is no shortage of Oracle software licenses lying around.

That's why Nigam Desai, Cellnet+Hunt's PMP systems services manager in Kansas City, would like it if Oracle could somehow reduce the number of complex licenses necessary to do business.

"We actually initiated a conversation to see if maybe there is a different type of licensing option available," he said.

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