Summary:

There’s been plenty of digital ink spilled about Cisco’s purchase of Arch Rock, and its partnership with Itron. But there are other aspects to Cisco’s big smart meter push that bear some study, including the future of Arch Rock’s data center tech.

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There’s been plenty of digital ink spilled about Cisco’s purchase of wireless network startup Arch Rock, its partnership with Itron, and what it all means for an Internet Protocol (IP)-based smart grid. But there are other aspects to Cisco’s big smart meter push last week that bear some study, including the future of Arch Rock’s low-power wireless technology for data centers and just how Cisco plans to bring that to market — or doesn’t.

I delve into all of these details over at GigaOm Pro (subscription required), starting with the important point that Arch Rock’s “top-to-bottom” open standards claim is centered on a set of standards that are still under development. Specifically, the company’s PhyNet-Grid product is aligned with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)’s 802.15.4g effort, aimed at developing standards for the physical and media access control (MAC) layers of utility networks.

That’s important, because none of Arch Rock’s competitors — including rumored IPO candidate Silver Spring Networks and quieter but well-funded competitor Trilliant — can claim that their smart meter mesh networking technology is thoroughly compliant with IEEE standards that ensure “end-to-end” IP. But then, neither can Arch Rock, since the standard isn’t complete yet. With much at stake — the National Institute of Standards and Technology is looking to 802.15.4g to inform its smart grid standards-setting process  — there’s plenty of evidence in the record that all the mesh players are pushing to make room for this technology as well.

Then there’s the real world to think about. Arch Rock launched PhyNet-Grid in June by saying it would have gear in pilot deployments by the end of 2010, begging the question of how a startup could get up and running so quickly. The Cisco acquisition and Itron partnership answer those questions, but leave unanswered how the market will react to this new offering. Pike Research projects the smart meter space will continue to be dominated by proprietary mesh technologies, though standards-based systems will increase their share.

As for how Cisco will bring Arch Rock’s technology to market, Paul De Martini, CTO and VP of strategy for Cisco’s smart grid business unit, gave some more details in an interview last week. One key point he made was that Itron will be able to remotely upgrade its OpenWay meters to support a Cisco-Arch Rock system, which opens Cisco’s market to some of Itron’s existing customers — though not those that have older, one-way communicating meters using so-called AMR technology.

Of course, mesh isn’t the only network the smart grid will need. Certain grid automation functions require super-fast connections that are a better fit for fiber, specialized wireless systems like S&C Electric’s SpeedNet — and, perhaps, WiMax. Grid Net is the current champion of WiMax for smart meters, but its partner General Electric is also using WiMax for distribution grid management. But for networks that connect to millions of end-points, mesh remains a strong competitor against WiMax, as well as cellular networks — though players like Verizon, AT&T and Sprint are said to be lowering their prices to attract smart grid business.

De Martini also discussed some plans for Arch Rock’s low-power networking technology. Arch Rock got its start in low-power wireless sensor networks for data centers and commercial and industrial buildings, and that technology — centered on a different standards effort called 802.15.4e — will play a role in Cisco’s and Itron’s mesh networking partnership by offering the ability to keep working during power outages, he said. But whether it survives as a building sensor network product line is open to question. De Martini said that Cisco would support Arch Rock’s existing data center and C&I customers, but wouldn’t say if it would seek new ones. Instead, he pointed to how low-power sensors could be used to monitor transformer temperatures and other grid functions.

For more research on the smart grid check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Moving Into Substation Networking, Cisco Seizes Smart Grid’s Low-Hanging Fruit

Google’s latest smart grid play: white space

Smart algorithms, the future of the energy industry

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