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The Future of Utility GIS is Today

As of next month, I will have 20 years of experience, split between working directly for a distribution utility and more recently working for a vendor.  In my time, I have tried to closely follow the code of ethics that comes with being a registered, professional electrical engineer. 

It is with that background, that I will admit my frustration.  I see far too many utility companies buying software based on marketing hype.  Or, utilities that are led in a direction by consultants who only know and recommend specific solutions.  After all, “No one ever got fired for buying from IBM.”  But most of the time, these decisions are led by limited information.  Then they are fueled by the emotion that choosing the right product, over the known product, will be subject to scrutiny.  Most people select the safe route, as there are never any questions when you choose IBM.  Little do they know that tunnel vision buying decisions are risk laden and have very little return on investment. 

Marketing Hype

As I wrote about in early January, I thought that there would be three key areas of interest at DistribuTECH in San Antonio. 

  1. EPRI launching their Utility Consortium on Distribution Network Model Management (NMM) as the evolution to replace legacy GIS systems
  2. Hexagon Safety & Infrastructure promoting the prototype work they have done around NMM at Snohomish PUD, and discussing their plans to productize NMM based on the EPRI research
  3. The announcement of the new ESRI Utility Network (EUN) and the surrounding discussions about the viability of this platform

During the conference, I met with a number of utility delegates, as well as consultants and other vendors to talk about the ESRI EUN announcement.  Officially, it is called ArcGIS Utility Network Management extension.  The marketing behind this is brilliant, as “extension” would lead you to believe that this is a simple upgrade from version 10.2.1.  When in reality, this is a brand new product, with a completely different data model. 

When I read the press release issued, the headline included the tagline that this was the “World's First Complete Utility GIS Platform.”  When you read this, along with the product information, you would be led to believe that ESRI has just revolutionized GIS, doing something that has never been done before.  But in reality, the functions listed in EUN have mostly been around since the early 1990’s. 

  • Scalability that does not require extensive hardware
  • Addressing performance issues for larger utilities
  • Modern version management
  • Tracing capability with faster results
  • Managing connectivity in a logical database and not via geometric representation
  • Viewing data via web services in dashboards and portals
  • Automatically creating schematics instead of hand drawing them
  • Managing validation through rules based engine
  • Featuring the concept of terminals
  • Modeling each utility commodity in a single database

If websites contained temporal capabilities, you would see that GE Smallworld and Intergraph G/Technology have both had these features as core technology for almost two decades.  So when a mass marketing machine claims to be the world’s first, it hard to just stand aside and not ask questions or point out facts.

More than just an Upgrade

This is no standard software upgrade.  Having worked for a vendor that went through an architecture change for GIS nearly 20 years ago, this is an entirely brand new product that requires significant investment.  Just a few of the comments on EUN that I either heard or read from credible sources include.

…daunting task of transition to the new network (model)…

…complex transformation of the existing GIS models will be needed…

…this will be a major change in how the data is modeled…

…this will require substantial migration and conversion…

…it will be difficult to prove the value in this change…

…by 2020 there SHOULD be enough experience in the industry to perform a 10.2.1 migration to EUN…

In addition to the “substantial migration and conversion” required in adoption of this extension, is the shear risk in moving to new software.   The Gartner Hype Cycle does an excellent job of explaining this concept.  

Gartner Hype Cycle

Source: https://blogs.gartner.com/svetlana-sicular/magic-realism-of-big-data/ 

ESRI is currently at the peak of inflated expectations were there is early adoption, joined with mass media and heading toward the trough of disillusionment. 

Data Migration

The truth is that this product has been in the works for many years and has gone through alpha and beta releases before struggling to finally be released last month.  You can find many YouTube video webinars where ESRI has partnered with data migration vendors and utilities to prove that data can be migrated from a geodatabase, into a modern architected data model in an open, non-proprietary database.  In one case, a utility in the webinar admitted that they had been working for two years on the pre-release versions of the software, and they were able to show a single circuit in demonstration.  Then they noted, that they hoped to be live on the new software sometime in 2019.  Doing the math, that is 4-5 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, just to have what other vendors have been doing since the last century.  Moving from older versions of ESRI up to the Utility Network will require extensive data migration. 

Case Studies

At the conference, I spoke with one consultant who was talking about a large U.S. utility that was leaving another vendor and going to adopt ESRI technology.  This will require them first to migrate from a logical database centric data model to a geometric network with ArcGIS 10.2.1, then migrate the data AGAIN into the ESRI Utility Network with a database model, once it is mature.  The general consensus amongst experts is that it will be about 2020 or beyond before the ESRI Utility Network product is stable and viable as the platform for large utilities.  That is two data migrations, all to go to a new product that as of right now is mostly marketing hype.  There can be no return on investment in this situation.   

Then there are the utilities who are currently using the 10.1.x products.  Because EUN is not currently viable and 10.1 is no longer supported, they will have to first upgrade to 10.2.x to overcome the significant performance issues in the 10.1 platform.  Then they will have to stay on version 10.2.x for several years, waiting until EUN is mature such that they can perform another data migration into a logical model.  10.2.1 is currently set to have general support end in spring 2018, and be retired in 2020.  The hope for utilities using this version is that EUN will be viable by the time 10.2.1 is retired.  Until then, they will not receive any further added functionality and after 2020, they will operate without hot patches and work in an uncertified environment.  This does not provide much confidence in the stability of the environment during the waiting period.

Uncertain Future Dependent on Partners

For ESRI, the legacy strategy had been clear; serve as the core platform for GIS in which third party applications are built upon.  This is holds true with utility customers, who use a combination of ArcGIS and Schneider ArcFM, which provides functionality to the utility industry that is missing in the core ArcGIS.  ESRI typically has not focused on end user applications, but have relied on 3rd parties to build solutions.  So with the announcement of EUN, it is perceived that they are now offering a competing solution with Schneider ArcFM. 

Publicly, ESRI has stated that even though their core capabilities will increase with EUN, that their partner solution capabilities (Schneider) will also increase.  With the delays to market of EUN, it has also set back the partner development of 3rd party tools that rely on the core ESRI functions.  Schneider has announced that they have plans to release ArcFM XI, as GM of Schneider Geospatial, Jay Stinson noted in September of 2016, their solutions will need to “evolve”.   These tools are planned, but it is not known how exactly they will complement the ESRI Utility Network. 

The future of this relationship is uncertain.  Utilities who currently rely on the combined technology to support their network GIS are left in a state of flux.

Moving Forward

After all of the research, I can only recommend that utilities proceed with caution – this was a common message from most people I spoke with at the conference.  Don't make any decision based on the current marketing hype.  ESRI Utility Network may literally turn out to be the best thing since sliced bread, but as of now it is unproven.  For utilities still on the 10.1 platform, the promise have two data migrations before EUN is mature is a significant investment, with a lot of uncertainty.  Before just going down this path and assuming that ESRI can deliver the same level proven technology as GE and Intergraph, it might be a good time to look at these competing technologies.  Maybe the future of their network modeling capabilities is the road to be taken and can be had today for far less risk and financial investment.

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