By Charlotte Gliddon-Bush

Integrating back office and legacy systems is a challenge for many energy companies. Integration servers can provide a flexible solution and help to prepare a business for e-commerce.

In order to thrive in today’s demanding deregulated power market, energy utilities are having to come up with new ways in which to ensnare new clients and ensure customer satisfaction in a bid to retain existing ones.

The e-business revolution is now prevalent in the energy industry, and as a result, business are expected to move with speed, efficiency and flexibility in response to ever changing market conditions. Vitria Technology, through its e-business platform BusinessWare, allows utilities to conduct business electronically across corporate networks and over the internet, and meet the requirements of this faster and more demanding marketplace.

BusinessWare is an integration server that can be tailored to meet each individual utility’s need. The integration server efficiently transmits information from one database or application to another in a secure manner.

It regulates the exchange of information between the internal applications and external systems of a company’s business partners and customers using open standards like XML, UML and Java. This helps reduce time-to-market for new products and services, shortens business transaction cycles, cuts administration costs, and because it offers a better and quicker service, it increases customer satisfaction.

BusinessWare can be used in many applications and offers a variety of benefits to independent system operators (ISOs), regional transmission organizations (RTOs), energy service providers and power exchanges, to name but a few. These benefits include:

  • Analyses data to detect faults
  • Manages equipment outages within the distribution network and automatically alerts relevant personnel
  • Allows the user to communicate in real-time with suppliers, buyers and customers, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while keeping information secure
  • Billing solutions for energy service suppliers, which allows them to integrate their offerings to their customers and combine all of their disparate systems
  • Credit and risk management
  • Real-time market feeds
  • Load control integration
  • Tailored to meet each utility’s individual needs.

Promising marketplace

Companies such as BP, Blu and Deutsche Bank have already invested in Vitria’s e-solutions. So far, BusinessWare technology has proved to be most popular in the US, with Europe being a little slow on the up-take. But Vicky Williams, Vitria Systems engineer, believes that the demand will intensify and she sees a positive future for the technology: “[Because of] mergers and deregulation, companies are struggling to administer all this at the moment. Also legal changes and regulatory changes often lead to the need for this type of product as it allows companies to react quickly when needed.”

She adds: “The energy industry is one of our fastest growing market places in the USA. Here in Europe, [Vitria] itself is younger, so the take up is a bit slower. But we are certainly seeing a lot of interest.”

There are three main factors that explain why the technology has been popular in the USA since its launch.

Firstly, restructuring and deregulation of the electricity supply industry in many parts of the US have created a need for demand response. This is where energy suppliers have the ability to buy back capacity from customers with discretionary loads so that others with inflexible demand can continue to be served during critical demand periods. This offers a preferred alternative to rolling blackouts or system collapse due to unmanageable peak demand. The need for demand response services will increase as pressure to reduce costs and make better use of existing networks grows as electricity grids are pushed to their limits.

Secondly, because of deregulation, electricity prices have become volatile in some areas. And finally the reliability and quality of service is becoming an issue as supplies become tight in many regions of the USA due to capacity shortages and/or transmission bottlenecks. Transmission constraints mean that many major demand centres cannot be adequately served during heavy demand periods, even when adequate generation capacity may be available in neighbouring areas.

The combination of these three factors has created a compelling opportunity for demand response, and the California crises demonstrated the need for this technology.

BusinessWare structure

Vitria’s BusinessWare integration server comprises three layers that can be linked together or used separately to meet a utilities needs. The first basic level, an Enterprise Application Intrgration (EAI), deals with the movements of information and transactions from and to different internal business applications and provides robust, scalable messaging and graphical connectivity tools. When passing the information from application to application, the EAI transforms the data into a generic format that can be read by the receiving application.

This software replaces the point to point connectivity that was previously used to ‘glue’ together a number of separate applications using a code. With EAI software, each application only has to be connected to the EAI once, rather than directly with each other. This, therefore, simplifies the structure and decouples applications, making it easier to add new applications.

Demand response solutions are becoming critical in competitive markets and in regions with tight supply margins
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A communicator and connectors make up the EAI. The connectors are used to deal with connectivity and transportation. In order to do this, the connectors speak to part of the product known as the communicator, which is the messaging ‘buff’.

The EAI is available on its own to customers but is rarely sold like this because you get much more value with the business process management (BPM) system. It is the next step up from the EAI and provides the intelligent business processing logic required to coordinate and monitor the transfer of data.

The BPM layer is used for high level integration requirements. Business processes are graphically defined, easily changed and customized by the user, and carried out through controlled information flow across business systems.

“This is where business process modelling on top of the EAI can add a bit of extra value. You can put in decisions and monitor a process from end-to-end automatically without breaking out for input from personnel,” explained Williams.

This software will be useful if, for example, an organization needs to credit check a new customer that registers via a website; the BPM will check that the information entered is correct and it will be passed onto the right applications and databases so that the customer gets the right services.

The BPM comprises two products, a process automator and a real-time analyser. The process automator provides the automation of the business process via a modelling environment. It also includes a workflow path, which allows for human intervention when needed. An example of this would be if a new customer entered their post code incorrectly – the workflow system would alert a customer service manager to correct the problem. The BPM can automatically alert people via a variety of media including email or pager.

The real-time analyser takes static data that has passed through the organization and outputs it in various formats for analysis. It can also examine data that is being passed through the process automator to provide a real-time analysis. The advantage of this is that it can pass feedback back into the system in real-time, allowing the organization to adjust to an unusual event rapidly, thus reducing operational risk.

Requirements of a successful e-business enabled company
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The analysed data can be displayed on a traditional graphical tool, or in Cockpit – a graphical tool that allows the viewer to monitor the information in real-time.

The third and final layer of BusinessWare is the B2Bi software. This enables the organization to store and manage information and interact with its partners, suppliers and customers in an automated fashion via the internet or other chosen media. The user can easily add, remove and change partners, while being capable of communicating with large e-business networks through multiple standards, such as RosettaNet and BizTalk.

The B2Bi server is kept separate to the rest of BusinessWare to isolate internal and external processes for security reasons. It can be placed within a firewall with the BusinessWare server behind the firewall.

Any or all of these layers can be used to ensure that BusinessWare is tailored to meet each individual utility’s needs as far as possible. Vitria uses consultants and provides training to allow the utility to further customize the software to its needs.

By doing this, BusinessWare’s management of internal and external processes, supported by a collection of common services, ensures the high level of performance, flexibility and control necessary to succeed in this demanding market.