Will Smart Grid power IPv6?

Billions invested in "smart" meters, sensors could spark demand for next-gen Internet, experts say

Could Smart Grid, the Obama Administration's effort to modernize the nation's electric grid, be the killer app for IPv6?

Q&A: Why IP is the right choice for Smart Grid

That's what Internet engineers are asking as they see billions of dollars in stimulus funds pumped into smart electric meters, automated utility substations and new sensors networks – all of which could take advantage of the abundant address space and built-in security offered by IPv6, the long-anticipated upgrade to the Internet's main communications protocol.

The White House announced on Tuesday that it had awarded $3.4 billion in stimulus grants to electric utilities to support 100 modernization projects. The government's Smart Grid grants are being matched with private sector funds for a total investment of more than $8 billion over the next three years.

Federal officials say Smart Grid will support Internet standards.

At issue, is whether Smart Grid will support the current Internet architecture, which is built upon IPv4, or whether it could help drive adoption of the next-generation Internet standard known as IPv6 in corporate and home networks. Available for more than a decade, IPv6 has been slow to catch on because there has been no concrete business driver that compelled companies to spend money upgrading their routers, servers and applications to support it.

IPv4, the Internet's main communications protocol, uses 32-bit addresses and can support 4.3 billion publicly addressable devices on the Internet. IPv6 uses a 128-bit addressing scheme and can support an inconceivably huge amount of devices: 2 to the 128th power. IPv6 also features built-in security and enhanced network management features when compared with IPv4, which is expected to run out of address space by 2012.

With IPv4 address space exhaustion looming, Internet experts say it's critical for Smart Grid projects to embrace IPv6.

"If Smart Grid is going to be successful, it will support tens of millions of devices or potentially hundreds of millions of devices. We don't have that much IPv4 address space left for that project," says John Curran, president and CEO of the American Registry for Internet Numbers, which doles out IPv4 and IPv6 address space to ISPs.

Curran says utilities could use private IPv4 addresses hidden behind network address translation (NAT) boxes for Smart Grid projects, but that this approach is more complicated and has a greater risk of error than if utilities use IPv6, with its plentiful publicly visible address space.

Because IPv4 addresses are scarce, companies often use NAT devices to share a single public IPv4 address among dozens or hundreds of systems that use private, often duplicated IPv4 addresses. These private IPv4 addresses cause problems if inadvertently leaked across the public Internet by private IP-based networks.

"If Smart Grid has to do an addressing plan that handles issues of conflicts, NATs and running out of address space, that makes their project a lot harder," Curran says. "It's certainly more straight-forward with IPv6. I wouldn't want to be the person who writes the plan for how Smart Grid is going to run for decades to come with IPv4."

What is Smart Grid?

Smart Grid is a two-way data communications system that will provide electric utilities with real-time visibility and control of the electricity used by customers. Having a Smart Grid is considered vital to the development of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind as well as plug-in electric hybrid vehicles.

"SmartGrid is all about delivering renewable energy and being able to distribute renewable resources. We want to have an architecture for Smart Grid so that buildings with solar panels and windmills can inject power into the grid," explains George Arnold, National Coordinator for Smart Grid Interoperability at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Smart Grid is expected to be built using Internet standards. However, some high-performance command and control applications could require special-purpose network protocols, NIST says.

"IP and the Internet standards will be a protocol of choice in the Smart Grid," Arnold says. "There may be specialized applications where it's not the right fit, and so we're falling short of saying IP has to be used everywhere…When you get to communications with the hundreds of millions of devices that will interact with the Smart Grid, the smart appliances and so forth, clearly IP has overwhelming advantages in terms of ubiquity, implementation and its ability to create interoperable infrastructure at a low cost."

Arnold says he sees many benefits to Smart Grid adopting IPv6 in the long term, but that some utilities have forged ahead with modernization efforts using IPv4.

IPv6 is "a no-brainer in terms of the direction of Smart Grid," Arnold says. "However, we also have to support current technology. There are meter manufacturers that are already using IP, and they are using IPv4. We need to have a strategy that leverages technology that is currently available and evolves it into the long-term vision."

Internet experts warn that it's a mistake for electric utilities to use IPv4 in their Smart Grid projects.

"There are 150 million meters in the United States. If you're going to put an IP address on every meter node in the U.S., you're not going to get them with IPv4," says Richard Shockey, a former NeuStar executive who runs his own consulting firm. "This has not completely come to the utilities' attention…What the electric utilities have to understand is that a lot of the standards they wish to deploy on IP networks need to be properly re-engineered for IPv6."

IETF pushes IPv6

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is hoping NIST chooses many of the group's standards, particularly IPv6, for Smart Grid.

Former IETF Chair and Cisco Fellow Fred Baker has written a document that identifies the core protocols in the IP suite that Smart Grid projects should consider using.

"Some views of the Smart Grid would have the utilities be able to access appliances behind the meter and talk to your refrigerator," Baker says. "If you're going to do that, you're going to need more IP addresses than one on each meter. That's one place where IPv6 becomes really important."

Another argument for IPv6 in the Smart Grid meter interface is that utilities will likely use wireless networks to communicate with thousands of meters through a management gateway or router. "You need a protocol where you can put that many devices in a subnet. It's possible with IPv4, but it's easy with IPv6," Baker says.

Baker recommends that electric utilities always support IPv6 in their Smart Grid projects, but that they also should support IPv4 in the short term.

"IPv6 is honestly a better solution," Baker says. "If you're putting 5,000 homes in a single subnet, you can do that in IPv4, but I wouldn't want to try it…We can do it in a simpler, more scalable and more robust way with IPv6."

Baker says some utilities plan to use private IPv4 addresses for their Smart Grid projects, assuming that these Smart Grid communications will never touch the Internet. He says this is a mistake because ISPs and Web sites regularly run into problems when private IPv4 addresses are accidentally exposed to the Internet.

"It's just safer for the utility industry to have a unique IPv6 address space," Baker adds.

Baker says it is also less expensive for utilities to use Internet standards — including IPv6 — than proprietary alternatives in their Smart Grid projects.

"If I can build a common infrastructure that everything runs over, it becomes cheaper to build, cheaper to run, and cheaper to maintain," Baker says. "That's the fundamental argument behind the Internet architecture."

Fast track deployment

Smart Grid is on a fast track for deployment, and the question of whether it will embrace IPv6 should be determined by 2010.

NIST ramped up its 2-year-old Smart Grid effort in April after the modernization effort received billions of dollars in stimulus funds. In September, NIST issued a draft set of Smart Grid interoperability standards that refer to both IPv4 and IPv6, with a final version due by year's end.

NIST will establish a Smart Grid interoperability panel to oversee the standards development process going forward. The panel will be selected at Grid-Interop 2009, which is being held Nov. 17-19 in Denver.

The sheer size of the Smart Grid opportunity has attracted the attention of the nation's leading network vendors. BCC Research predicts the Smart Grid market will grow from $17.3 billion in 2008 to $37.4 billion in 2014. Among the network vendors that are eyeing this opportunity are Cisco, IBM, Microsoft and Google.

Smart Grid "is huge," Shockey says. "This is the biggest re-engineering of a data communications structure outside of a telco that I've seen in the last 15 years…There's no doubt in my mind that every data communications company in North America is looking at this."

That's why Shockey and others are hoping Smart Grid will help drive IPv6 deployment.

"Somebody needs to tell the electric industry that it's self evident that the Smart Grid standards have to be engineered for IPv6," Shockey says.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.