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August 13, 2009

Smart Grid Portal Thought Leadership Series: Marc Robins of the SIP Forum



(Editor’s Note: The Thought Leadership Series is an ongoing forum where we interview industry players and thought leader in the Smart Grid space. For this segment, Jon Arnold (News - Alert) interviews Marc Robins, executive director of the SIP Forum. SIP has an important role to play in the evolution of communications technologies within the Smart Grid, and Marc helps us understand where and how it offers the best opportunities for utilities.)
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Jon Arnold: Our Smart Grid portal has been launched with a vision to create thought leadership that brings several worlds together, namely utilities, energy management, smart homes, telecom and IT. For the benefit of the Smart Grid community, please give us an overview of the SIP Forum (News - Alert) and how you’re advancing the adoption of SIP.
 
Marc Robins (News - Alert): The SIP Forum was founded 9 years ago as a non-profit IP communications industry association to promote the adoption of SIP by the companies developing products and services. The SIP Forum currently has 48 dues-paying corporate Full Members, 5 academic institutional members, and over 6000 individual members from around the world.
 
Fast forward to today and now virtually every product is SIP-based. Since the original “battle for adoption” has been won, the SIP Forum is now onto “Job #2” – solving interoperability problems to allow different SIP-based networks and various IP communications systems to seamlessly interoperate together. This is a critical need because SIP is a complex standard and there are a number of different options available to developers of equipment and services.
 
In this regard, the SIP Forum is responsible for producing new industry technical recommendations that provide a specific set of rules and guidelines that determine which SIP RFC and deployment option to use when and where. One good example is the SIPconnect Technical Recommendation, which provides rules and guidelines for accomplishing SIP trunking, or direct IP peering, between SIP-enabled IP-PBXs and SIP-enabled VoIP service providers.
 
The Forum’s SIPconnect Compliant Program is an associated certification program designed to certify equipment vendors and service providers as SIPconnect compliant and thus offer the highest degree of confidence that they will be able to accomplish trouble-free SIP trunking.
Other notable activities of the Forum include additional task groups tackling Fax-over-IP and User Agent interoperability challenges, producing a variety of educational workshops and trade show-related activities that highlight interoperability issues and cover successful applications and deployments, the production of bi-annual SIPit (News - Alert) interoperability test events, and providing an active "meeting place" for developers of commercial SIP-based products and services.
 
JA: The SIP Forum has been building strong momentum, not just with telecoms, but all types of service providers. Why is this broader appeal happening, and how is this benefiting these various types of service providers?
 
MR: It’s no secret that one of the key benefits of IP-based communications technology is that it can be deployed in a number of new, competitive environments other than the incumbent telco infrastructure. For example, IP-based technology has enabled cable MSOs and Internet-based providers to become telephony providers. As these providers build out their networks, they are adopting best-in-class communications technology, which is overwhelmingly SIP-based. The SIP Forum’s work in areas such as SIP trunking, for example, has as much relevance for these “new” providers as it has for the traditional telcos. Moreover, interoperability is an essential condition not just for “on-net” applications but “off-net” as well, where interconnection with a variety of service provider networks is pretty much a fact of life today.
 
JA: Building out from that, tell us about the Forum’s interest in the Smart Grid space. Where do you see SIP fitting in best with this community, and what initiatives are in the works?
 
MR: As utilities contemplate building a communications infrastructure overlaid with their existing power grids, they will need to be able to support the various signaling requirements of a smart grid deployment. The SIP Forum sees an important, emerging role for SIP in this effort in terms of providing support for various device management, video monitoring and surveillance, and advanced metering issues, to name a few. The industry is clearly in the very earliest stages of investigation and planning into the specific design of the Smart Grid infrastructure and what technologies are most appropriate to deploy. The SIP Forum is likewise in an investigative mode to determine if SIP is the logical communication standard protocol of choice for this environment, and if so, how would it need to be adopted to support required Smart Grid applications.
 
JA: Utilities tend to take a different view of SIP than those in the SIP Forum community. What’s your take on that, and where do you think the biggest points of contention lie?
 
MR: I would say that it’s more accurate to state that SIP is currently not yet on the radar screens of many utilities, but that as utilities morph into communications providers, they will see the same value in SIP as today’s IP communications equipment vendors and service providers do – that is, as an essential, standard enabling technology for the provision of all manner of leading-edge communications applications.
 
As we are just out of the Smart Grid starting gate, so to speak, there are many alternative technologies jockeying for position, so if there is a point of contention it is in deciding what communications protocol is the best for the job(s) at hand. But again, we are so early in the process that I don’t think there’s been a jury selected for this chore yet.
 
JA: In what ways can the Forum help reconcile those differences, and who else do you see being able to play this type of a role?
 
MR: The SIP Forum has always been, since its inception, a consensus-driven, industry association that works completely on behalf of the IP Communication industry. Whatever work we create are the products of groups of individuals representing most of the leading companies in the industry. As such, we are completely vendor and product agnostic. What better place to investigate the role for SIP in a Smart Grid environment?!
 
But seriously, the SIP Forum can serve an important investigative and educational role in exploring the applicability of SIP for Smart Grids, and as an important liaison between the standards bodies that have oversight over the actual standards, and manage their evolution.
 
JA: Interoperability in particular seems to be a common theme. To help address this, do you envision the Forum developing something comparable to SIPconnect for utilities?
 
MR: In that SIPconnect is a “best-practices” specification, I could envision the Forum developing a “best-practices” specification, providing specific rules and guidelines for achieving interoperability for specific smart grid applications.
 
JA: What other initiatives do you think would help utilities and telcos learn from each other and enable the Smart Grid vision to live up to its promise?
 
MR: That’s an easy one, Jon: more Smart Grid Summits like the one you are producing! I’m looking forward to your event and to the “meeting of the minds” that is sure to occur.
 

Learn more about Smart Grids at the Smart Grid Summit — collocated with ITEXPO, the biggest and most comprehensive IP communications event of the year. ITEXPO (News - Alert) (News - Alert) West will take place in Los Angeles, Sept. 1 to 3, 2009, featuring three valuable days of exhibits, conferences, and networking opportunities you can’t afford to miss. Don’t wait. Register now.


Follow ITEXPO on Twitter: twitter.com/itexpo

Jon Arnold is co-founder of Intelligent Communications Partners (ICP), a strategic advisory consultancy focused on the emerging Smart Grid opportunity. To read more of his Smart Grid articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Michael Dinan
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