Friday, September 16, 2011

This Smart Meter Stuff is for Real

Yesterday IBM hosted a Smart Meter Summit in Austin. I attended not because I do anything with Smart Meters, but because I have seen and heard the IBM speak about Informix TimeSeries and how it is a perfect fit for Smart Meter data and wanted to hear more. I wanted to find out for myself if this was for real, to find out if there is there an opportunity for Informix to grow here or if it is just Smarter Planet marketing fluff.

It is for real.

The number of homes and businesses with a Smart Meter is growing with no sign of slowing down. What I found interesting was the reason for this growth. Before attending the Summit I imagined the push for these meters was because they give you a more granular view of your power usage giving the consumer the ability to see their power consumption in near real time instead of once per month so they can switch things off if they are using too much power. I was wrong. This is definitely one benefit of Smart Meters, but the real driving force behind the push for Smart Meters is something called a Truck Roll.

A Truck Roll is the industry term for the utility company sending a human to a house (presumably in a truck) to turn on or off power to a dumb meter. With a Smart Meter, this can be controlled remotely and the need for a person to physically turn something on or off is eliminated resulting in significant savings for the utility company. My town of Austin, TX converted to Smart Meters in 2009 and eliminating these Truck Rolls has saved Austin Energy $15 Million per year.

Eventually every meter will be smart. This is great and everything, but what does this have to do with Informix?

Informix is a relational database, just like Oracle, DB2, MySQL, SQL Server, etc., but it has the ability to store time series data in a non relational format on disk and the others don't. This results in reduced storage requirements and performance gains over the relational only competition. In one study we were shown, Informix TimeSeries reduced storage requirements by 50% and performance scaled linearly as the amount data grew vs. an exponential degradation in performance experienced when using a traditional RDBMS. This last part was very interesting to me. If you are a utility company, you know that your Smart Meter data is going to grow. Without TimeSeries when your data volume doubles in size you will have to purchase four times as much hardware to keep up if using a relational RDBMS, when your data quadruples in size you will have to purchase 16 times as much hardware to keep up. That's a lot of hardware.

Let's look at another benefit of Informix TimeSeries. Say I'm a utility company and I've made the horrible mistake of implementing my Smart Meter Grid using a traditional relational database. It worked great against the 10,000 meter pilot and we're rolling out to 100,000 meters and whoopsie-daisy, performance starts to degrade. OMG, I now know I should have used Informix, but I've got all this code written for a relational model and Informix TimeSeries uses its own special API. I can't rewrite everything I have to work with TimeSeries, I better buy some more hardware and just make what I have already work, for now.

Not true. TimeSeries DOES have an API that you can take advantage of if you want ultimate supreme performance, but if you would like to sacrifice some performance (approx. 10%, but still way better than the RDBMS model) you can take advantage of the Informix Virtual Table Interface (VTI) that makes non relational TimeSeries data LOOK LIKE A RELATIONAL TABLE! You can select, insert, update and delete TimeSeries data just like it was a normal table. Moving to Informix TimeSeries from a traditional RDBMS now involves minimal code changes.

There are some real things to get excited about here even if you don't care about Smart Meters. Informix is generating some buzz within IBM because it is the only engine that can handle this kind of data. You can bet that people will see an opportunity to sell solutions to the utility companies and they will be selling Informix. Also, what happens when these companies start using Informix for their Smart Meter data and realize Informix is reliable, fast and doesn't require a hoard of DBAs to run? They just might start to look at Informix for other DB duties, is what. We should also expect to see more and more Blue Dollars spent on marketing and promoting Informix, which is a good thing. I'll be at IOD this year and if I don't see some Smart Planet/Smart Meter/Informix stuff I will be more shocked than dissapointed (I'll still be dissapointed though).

For more information about Informix TimeSeries, check out these links:

IBM News talking about Informix TimeSeries
IBM Informix TimeSeries/Smart Meter White Paper
Why Informix Rules for TimeSeries Data Management


  1. Great article Andrew. I would like to add that the Time Series Datablade is included with the Informix database server and does not require an additional license fee. Even more of a reason to move everything to Informix!

  2. I'm glad you mentioned that part, it is amazing that TimeSeries is bundled with the engine for no additional charge.

    At the networking dinner the night before the summit, we were talking about non Informix options for Smart Meter data and someone brought up MySQL. Someone chuckled and said, "Well, you get what you pay for. There isn't a free engine out there that can handle the time series data." I replied, "What about Innovator-C. It is a free for production Informix engine that comes with TimeSeries. Sure you are limited to 2 CPUs and 2 GB memory but there is no limitation on instance size, so for some installs it might work."