SAN FRANCISCO — A startup with a novel blend of application software, wireless control networking and cloud computing is entering the home/small-office energy-management market.
People Power will license network termination stacks and proprietary wireless network adapters to durable goods manufacturers, enabling remote energy monitoring and device control. In addition, the company has created a suite of end-user energy-logging, device control, analysis, and energy-related social networking tools that give non-technical users plug-level remote control over their energy consumption.
In so doing, People Power has launched one of the early examples of a measurement and control network that relies on a computing resource in the cloud.
The foundation of the offering—collectively called the Energy Services Platform (ESP)—is Osian (Open-Source IPv6 Automation Network). The protocol allows device-specific energy consumption data and power control commands to move back and forth across a variety of networks between the energy-consuming devices and the cloud. Target devices would include home appliances, entertainment systems, lighting, computing equipment and office equipment. Equipment designers would include the protocol stack in their designs, and would link the devices to the Internet through such means as a Wi-Fi port, a Zigbee connection to a bridge or a Z-Wave port.
Alternatively, People Power said it will license a reference design for a proprietary wireless network module, to be made available in February 2011. The 1-square-inch module implements a node on a proprietary 900-MHz ISM-band network intended specifically for energy management. The module is based on a Texas Instruments SoC, the RF-carrying CC430, and on a protocol stack built on TinyOS. Devices using the modules would make up a private long-range network that included some sort of bridge to the Internet. It is, of course, up to the device manufacturers to link the module’s I/O pins to energy monitors and control circuits in their designs.
Through the local network, the embedded portion of the ESP platform links to software in the cloud, which performs four functions: energy monitoring and statistics generation, rules-based device control, comparative analysis of energy use, and—the social networking part—energy-saving competitions with other users. All four categories of services are provided by People Power, hosted on Amazon’s EC2 cloud.
Security is clearly an issue in such an architecture. People Power CEO Gene Wang explained that ESP relies on 128-bit AES encryption—implemented in hardware on the SoC—to secure the device end of its network, and on secure socket services and Amazon’s internal controls to secure the cloud end.
Another significant issue is finding a workable business model for a startup entering this market. People Power said it intends to charge royalties to manufacturers who incorporate Osian or the RF networking module in their designs. In addition the company will charge a one-time set-up fee and an annual access fee to manufacturers whose products connect to the cloud applications.
That leaves a rather large elephant standing quietly in the corner: critical mass. A product such as ESP is only useful to end-users if the majority of the discretionary power at their location is being consumed by ESP-enabled devices. This suggests that People Power’s value proposition really kicks in once the company has achieved significant market penetration across a range of device manufacturers and product categories—the old chicken-and-egg problem.
People Power is attacking the problem with partnerships, according to Wang. The company, for example, is partnering with its SoC vendor, TI, and with home/office networking vendor D-Link. People Power is also involved in a Stanford University behavioral study relating to energy conservation.
Perhaps the most indicative of the company’s early engagements is its partnership with office equipment giant Ricoh. In the small-office environment, it is more likely that most of the high-drain equipment might come from a single vendor, so an ESP user could indeed control much of the energy consumption of the office through ESP by standardizing on a single ESP-deploying equipment vendor.
As an example of an embedded system employing multiple networks and cloud-hosted applications within a low-frequency control loop, ESP illustrates many of the challenges such architectures will face. Delivery and latency variations arise from use of Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Z-Wave, or 900 MHz ISM-band channels. Similar issues attend any use of the Internet within an embedded system. And any time private data or commands cross a shared resource there are security questions.
In principle, robust architecture and algorithm design can deal with most of these points. People Power’s announcement is a signal that vendors are ready to try.