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A Language For Computers

In the offices and service trucks of the more than 800 distribution cooperatives in the United States, thousands of computers gather, process, and display all kinds of information about electricity—pole locations, meter readings, customer names and phone numbers, transformer serial numbers, the flow of watts, kilowatts, and megawatts.

Managing all that information and ensuring accuracy is a constant job for the experts in Information Technology (IT, for short). Making sure information gathered by one computer program can be shared with a different program, exactly when it’s needed, presents an especially vexing problem. What if the amount of room to type in a pole number is 12 characters long in one program, but only 10 characters in another program? What if one software application groups transformers by geographic location and another by manufacturer? Can these various programs understand and use each other’s information?

The answer is “yes” when electric utilities take advantage of a trademarked standardized system called MultiSpeak, an initiative developed by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. In February, NRECA announced the third version of MultiSpeak, a way to help computers anywhere in the electric utility industry share information in a simple, timely way.

IT managers talk in terms of “interfaces,” the point at which one computer program reaches out to another computer program to access information. MultiSpeak is a set of agreed-upon standards, or “protocols” in computer lingo, to allow the sharing of data among software applications.

Until the introduction of the first version of MultiSpeak a few years ago, distribution co-ops had only two choices if they wanted to share information among their various computer programs: they could buy all their computer programs from the same vendor, who would make sure the programs could “talk” to each other, or they could buy programs from several sources and pay someone else to create a customized communication system so these varied programs could exchange information.

Bob Saint, principal engineer in the Technical Services area at NRECA, says, “MultiSpeak offers a third option. This standard interface is the leader for distribution applications, accommodating everything from customer service to engineering analysis. We believe between 100 and 150 distribution co-ops are using MultiSpeak today. It’s difficult to give an exact number, because the protocols are available at no charge to any IT manager or software developer who wants to download them from our Web site.”

In Brandenburg, Meade County Rural Electric Co-op IT Supervisor Mike French says, “We use MultiSpeak to integrate our Geographic Information System, Automated Meter Reading, and Customer Information System. We can look up a customer’s meter on the AMR system and see billing information sent there in real time from our CIS system. Without MultiSpeak, these two systems would not be able to understand each other’s language.”

Gary McNaughton, vice president at Cornice Engineering headquartered in Longmont, Colorado, and a MultiSpeak project coordinator, says, “With the release of MultiSpeak3, we’ve moved to a new technology called ‘Web services,’ which uses the protocols that underlie the World Wide Web.” For co-op workers, this translates into what IT managers call a “seamless” approach. The worker stays in the program he or she is most familiar with, but the data on the screen could be coming from another program, thanks to MultiSpeak’s behind-the-scenes connections.

While physical standards such as wire dimensions have long been a part of the electric utility industry, computer technology standards are just beginning to get the attention they deserve. NRECA’s Executive Vice President of External Affairs Martin Lowery says, “In the United States, a number of investor-owned and municipal utilities have begun in the last year to request the use of MultiSpeak when they’re soliciting bids from vendors. We are working now to convince the International Electronics Council that MultiSpeak is exactly what’s needed at the distribution level for all utilities worldwide.…The more utilities that use it, the more effective it will become as new applications are developed in the future.”

To find out more about MultiSpeak, visit this Web site: www.multispeak.org.

Next month: Training Grid Operators

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