To the average consumer, interpreting the electricity bill and its many assorted fees can be difficult. But believe it or not, utility companies have it even worse.
For Entergy Corp., a New Orleans-based energy company, tracking the transfer of electricity among its many partners was a tedious process, dependent upon "gentleman's agreements" and hand-written faxes that were inefficient and which "too often got lost in space," said Entergy engineer Alan Thornton.
Even when Entergy and its fellow energy providers began using comma-separated values (CSV) files a few years ago to submit their orders to one another, it was still nearly impossible to record, with complete accuracy, where electricity was coming from and going to and who should be billed or paid for it.
That is, until recently, when an industry group called the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) passed a recommendation mandating that Entergy and its other members begin using Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP)-based XML files to automate the electricity ordering and delivery process by May 2002.
In March, with the NERC deadline less than 60 days away and nothing yet in place, Entergy needed a system it could quickly implement without disrupting its existing Java-based technology, but the company determined that it didn't have enough in-house SOAP experience to do the job on its own.
Thornton said his company looked at several software vendors, but "didn't see a lot of people out there that had a system that was readily available for installation and with little training." The only vendor that met its requirements was Cambridge, Mass-based Systinet Corp., so Entergy quickly decided to deploy a SOAP Web service using Systinet's WASP Server for Java standards-based Web services runtime environment and the WASP Developer products.
How it works
Today, Entergy's system works like this: rather than saving its data as CSV files, it uses XML. XML files are then wrapped in SOAP and sent by the Systinet WASP Server over the Internet to partners who, using similar systems, can quickly parse the files and store the data in their databases.
The system works two ways; Entergy can send as well as receive data, and it can combine the data with information already residing in its Oracle8 database. Thornton said information is then presented to its system operators, giving them a clear picture of what energy has been transferred, where it has been transferred to, and whether it's supposed to be there.
Thornton said the implementation was easy, but one of the few implementation issues involved Entergy's Web server. Before the implementation, it had been successfully running its Web systems with Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS), but on Systinet's recommendation, Entergy migrated to the Apache Tomcat 4 open-source Web server.
"[Systinet] had used other servers that weren't open-source with their services, but this one seemed to work best," Thornton said, adding that Entergy was comfortable with the decision because it had worked with open-source software in the past.
"Because there was a pretty short time frame, we didn't go with the regular training," said Systinet's director of product marketing, Zdenek Svoboda. "We focused on their problem and created a framework based on that."
Otherwise, after Systinet's daylong onsite class, Thornton said it was only a matter of performing the installation and building XML parsers and database connections before the Web service was up and running. He said it has been fully operational since late April, with only a few minor bugs to speak of. Currently it processes about 10,000 SOAP messages each month.
Thornton said the total cost of the implementation was difficult to calculate, but Entergy spent between $2,000 and $3,000 on setup and training.
For security reasons, Entergy uses a firewall to restrict the IP addresses from which it can send and receive SOAP messages, but Thornton said the Web service has made it so much easier to track its energy inventory that it will likely be expanded in the near future.
"This has been an evolving process. Before 1997, we were doing everything over the phone," said Thornton. "And now with this system, it's much more robust and it's made the process a lot easier."
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