Rural Electric co-ops soon may be able to minimize software customization costs, yet still get more mileage from AMR data they collect. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association has teamed with 120 software providers to develop version 2.1 of MultiSpeak, a specification for data exchanges among software applications commonly used by small electric utilities. Through MultiSpeak specifications, software vendors will be able to develop software that is easily integrated without the need for costly custom interfaces. Utilities will gain more power to choose software without being restricted to a single vendor's products.

Bringing All the Apps Together
Aimed at fostering the development of cost-effective, interoperable software for electric utilities, MultiSpeak version 1.1 originally was launched in late 2002. Before then, when two vendors lacked an interface between their products, co-ops were forced to manually maintain multiple databases or pay for custom programming, often at a cost of $10,000 to $20,000 per interface.

The earliest version of MultiSpeak covered customer information systems, geographic information systems, engineering analysis, automated staking and interactive voice response systems. The new version, MultiSpeak 2, covers those original five applications plus:

  • Automatic meter reading
  • Outage management
  • SCADA
  • Load management
What's more, the software now supports real-time system integration. Previously, MultiSpeak specifications addressed only batch environments, which still are supported in MultiSpeak 2. But adding real-time communication packs more power into MultiSpeak-compliant software because it allows a utility to unify all the data it possesses.

MultiSpeak 2 will enable co-ops to make better use of data captured by AMR systems, for example. When interfaced with an outage management system, data gathered by AMR can flesh out the specifics of an outage, helping utilities quickly locate, restore and verify service to all meters. "Similarly, information about blinks or power quality problems could be sent from an AMR system to an engineering analysis system," says Gary McNaughton, vice president of Cornice Engineering and MultiSpeak project manager.

"The move to real-time communications is going to enable utilities to maintain their databases in synchronism without the need for a person to take action," McNaughton adds. "It will all take place under the covers, so to speak."

Specs for Success
Along with facilitating integration of multiple applications in real time, the MultiSpeak initiative aims to:

  • Reduce the cost of interoperable software
  • Improve utility staff efficiency by reducing the time spent entering information into multiple programs
  • Minimize staff time spent managing the details of software, allowing staff to concentrate on jobs they were hired to do
MultiSpeak doesn't target delivery of a plug-and-play interface between applications. But even where custom development is necessary, MultiSpeak provides a foundation that minimizes the cost of specialized development.

Under the Hood
How does the MultiSpeak initiative work? The initiative relies on each software vendor to write a small interface that marshals the required information from the native data structure, converts those data into extensible markup language data packets in a common format, and sends those packets in the form of a predefined message. The receiving software application is responsible for unbundling the message and taking the appropriate action based on its contents.

MultiSpeak interfaces are defined based on information flows between software functions, not individual software applications. This was done, in part, to give flexibility to accommodate a number of different product types in the specification. For instance, with AMR, some systems support two-way communications that facilitate value-added services such as load profiling or remote disconnects, and some AMR systems don't support those applications. But both systems support meter-reading functionality, so by focusing on functions not applications, MultiSpeak specs accommodate a wide variety of utility software.

To find compliant software, look for products that have passed testing under the Version 2.1 specification. They'll be advertised using the V2 compliant product label.

You can learn more about MultiSpeak via the initiative's Web site or by attending the Second Annual MultiSpeak User's Conference, scheduled for June 25-27, 2003, in Atlanta. Both the conference and the specifications are covered in detail at http://www.multispeak.org/.

AMRA provides AMR information and education resources worldwide by advocating standards and the use of advanced metering technologies. Visit AMRA at www.amra-intl.org.

© 2003. Reprinted with permission from AMRA News.