Wednesday, 28 September 2016 05:43

Listen to your data, says Infigen Energy


Infigen Energy is an Australian renewable energy company which sought to simply solve a technical problem, and instead, transformed company information management delivering business value for all departments.

Infigen Energy derives its name from the words "infinite" and "generation". The organisation owned a wind farm portfolio in the US but divested this in October 2015 for $US274.4m, retaining four Australian locations, and revenues of US$133.8m and assets of US$2.4b.

While wind modelling is a complex topic there is a general perception that the variable operating expenditure of a wind farm ought to be low as the wind is essentially free. Yet, it turns out that equipment breaks and the big powerful pieces of equipment cost a lot to run – in fact, $20/MWh which is more than a brown or black coal generator. This might go some way to explaining why green energy still costs more than traditional energy.

Victor Sanchez, information and application architect, for Infigen Energy ("Basically, I play with data", Sanchez says of his title), explained that Infigen generates a massive amount of data from the wind turbines controlled by SCADA systems. Its control centre operates on a 24/7 basis, constantly monitoring not only windfarm events and weather forecasts, but also energy demand, price and market conditions.

Three years ago, when Sanchez came to Infigen, "a lot of stuff was inbuilt and was raw Excel. A system would load logs, someone would put them somewhere for others to look at, any of the wind farms would have different systems that will alert but with an industrial focus. For security reasons you have breakers like you have in your house that will pop up if something is wrong, but to actually do the operations you had isolated SCADA systems, and if anything went wrong you had to manually load the logs and look at them".

Additionally, Infigen has managed services which include not only IT operations but turbine manufacturers, and so on, all monitoring their own parts of the environment.

Ultimately, Sanchez had no existing unified system he could draw upon to manage all the complex systems and data in place.

He determined he needed a system to better manage IT operations. Having previously used Splunk and having positive experiences with it, Sanchez reached out to Splunk who helped him to implement it at Infigen for this specific purpose. It took him half a day. He was impressed with this speed of delivery and how quickly real business value was derived.

While the original intention was to use Splunk for IT purposes, Sanchez' manager was impressed by the visualisations and how Sanchez had real information on his smartphone. He asked if it could be made available to the rest of the company.

This began a process of evaluating how applicable Splunk was outside its historically-recognised space as a log file analysis tool. The answer, it turned out, is that data is data no matter if it is IT operations, wind turbines, financial markets or anything else.

Today, every Infigen employee has access to Splunk. IT operations use it, of course, but so does the risk manager who is notified if the company is feeding too much energy into the grid. So too the financial operations team use Splunk to get price alerts. So too, other departments. They receive alerts on their smartphone, they see visualisations and they fundamentally have access to real information that helps them manage their part of the business.

The catalyst for this transformation in how Infigen works with its data — and now having one unified tool across all divisions — was the clear ability for Splunk to provide business value that exceeded simply IT operations. "Often these types of tools are looking one way only," Sanchez said, they are "perceived as 'just a tool for IT'." Yet, Infigen saw the value for the business and provided the funding that allowed Sanchez to open it up for the rest of the business.

Sanchez says Infigen now operates dashboards for the executive level, for operations, for IT, and other departments, customised for the specific department functions to ensure real value is delivered. These dashboards were built with the initial assistance of Katana, a Splunk partner.

A benefit of using a single product like Splunk, Sanchez says, is that data can be correlated to make more sense of events.

He gives the example that when their telco has an outage on a link but does not notify them, they could ordinarily be left trying to work out what has gone wrong, querying many parts of their infrastructure until they find the cause. Now, with Splunk, they can realise it is an outage by the telco very quickly. The information is no longer siloed, nor is it simply a "black box" where something fails without clear information what or why. "Now we can receive data over every process and correlate it; we have some visibility over every bit of the pipeline," Sanchez says.

Sanchez gives a tip for successful implementation, for those also looking to embrace Splunk in their organisations. Infigen decided early to have product champions and owners in the different teams. It took time for these individuals to become familiar with the tools, but Infigen ran internal workshops to introduce them to it, explaining the data and the value and what one can do with it. The product owners can now themselves add new alerts or visualisations as they need without relying on internal IT.

Infigen has a 10Gb Splunk licence and plans to grow further in how it uses Splunk, but in a controlled way. Sanchez says while some consultants advocate ingesting all the company data, he found not everything has immediate business value. He states while testing Infigen ingested SharePoint log files but these caused them to exceed their licence and he determined these logs were not being used to solve any business challenges. Thus, Infigen discontinued ingesting SharePoint logs.

Sanchez says he wants to include more data but expresses it is important to make sure the data going into Splunk is valuable for somebody.

Interestingly, during the time of Sanchez' success story, Infigen Energy was enjoying another success in lifting its share price from US$0.22 in August 2015 to US$0.76 at the time of writing.

Four years ago Infigen Energy had a lot of debt and it was also a complex business with separate financing structures for its US assets.

Infigen Energy has worked hard over the last four years to improve its position hence the divestment of its US properties, as well as its European portfolio and it is strongly placed to deliver wind energy to Australians.

Analysts say the equity market initially abandoned Infigen Energy but after an increase in Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) prices the share price picked up.

iTWire asked Sanchez whether his work in creating operational efficiencies and delivering greater business insights had helped improve Infigen's market fortunes.

He was modest, saying lots of factors influenced the share price, before conceding that previously when troubleshooting a problem it could take months. Through the use of Splunk throughout the company, this has been cut to days and even minutes and possibly a dollar value could be ascribed to this.

"People tell me they have data on the go and this is a big gain," Sanchez said, "there's no more need to go to particular computers or data centres. We can monitor anywhere in the world how much energy we are feeding into the grid at any time."

Looking to the future Sanchez is excited about machine learning. He says Infigen will experiment with it and come to know it before implementation, but sees a future where the company will ingest more data to correlate financial and operational data and apply a machine learning algorithm to come up with some really interesting results. What those results or algorithms may be is yet to be determined, but it's a next step which Sanchez believes will unlock even greater business value.

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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