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Smart Grid Product of the Year Spotlight - Synapse Wireless

Smart Grid

March 03, 2010

Smart Grid Product of the Year Spotlight - Synapse Wireless

By Jon Arnold (ICP)
Co-founder, Intelligent Communications Partners
When our first smart grid product of the year, or “POTY,” awards were announced, I wrote a recap article summarizing the winners so readers could learn about all the companies in one place. Since then, I have followed up directly with some of these companies to learn more about what they bring to smart grid. One of those companies is Synapse Wireless, who has an industry-leading, Internet-compatible mesh network solution based on their SNAP solution. To further explore that and how they are enabling smart M2M communications for utilities, I conducted the following interview with Wade Patterson, CEO of Synapse.

First, I would like to congratulate Synapse Wireless on your POTY Award. The award was for the latest version – 2.2 – of your SNAP protocol solution, so let’s start there. You no longer spell it out, but the acronym means Synapse Network Applications Protocol. To begin, I’ll ask you to break that down for us on a more basic level and explain SNAP.

SNAP is software that provides a machine to machine wireless mesh network in a modern way. Modern meaning the software does as much for you automatically as possible so you don’t have to become a networking guru to use it. Modern also means that it allows easy interfacing to computers and to the internet. The nodes on the network each look like computers to the Internet, but they do that on very inexpensive, 8 bit microcontrollers with less than 64K of memory (that’s kilobytes, not megabytes) This means from a cost standpoint, this network can go anywhere. From smart grid types of devices, all the way down to being embedded in clothing, and still compatible with Internet Protocol. So you get the best of both worlds.
Stepping back, where does SNAP fit in your company’s overall product mix and market roadmap?

Every product we supply, or service we perform, or OEM product we supply – it’s all based on SNAP.   We use our technology in our products because it works and provides the fastest time to market of any solution available. We go from a gleam in the customer’s eye to a finished product in 6 months or less.

Moving on to the smart grid space, how important is this market to your company’s overall focus?

Smart grid is a top focus for us, but we have approached this market from the low visibility “energy side” up to this point. We are shipping and creating solutions in solar, LED lighting, and even on the transmission and delivery side of the grid because we felt these were where the nearest term solutions were needed.  

Let’s focus now on specific applications of SNAP to smart grid. There is a strong M2M element here, and tell us more about where this fits in the network environment for utilities.

Solar farm monitoring has been characterized in the past by very high end expensive solutions. We have designed a low cost solution that provides the same or better performance at half the cost. And with our SNAP Shot Internet data service, the data is sent to an Internet database and you can access your data without having to worry about the IT requirements. You just fire up a browser, log in and you are using your data right away. Our partner, Shoals Technologies is shipping product using this solution now.

LED lighting is a huge market that is growing fast. SNAP provides a built-in way to control LED lighting devices and to automatically provide a control network for the lights once they are installed. This allows for central monitoring and control of lighting in a building while cutting energy usage tremendously – such as on, off, dimming levels, colors and so forth.

We see M2M as an integral part of the smart grid opportunity. There are important M2M applications for SNAP both across the T&D network – such as SCADA – as well as in the home for things like metering and home automation. Where does SNAP come into play here?

You are correct that SNAP fits well with T&D applications as well as metering and automation. We are working on products in all of those areas, and SNAP is the wireless network that allows communication and control among the different devices. Just imagine the things you can do when you have a reliable sensor and control network coupled with Internet accessibility!

The IEEE (News - Alert) 802.15.4 specification is important to how M2M communications are managed. As we’ve seen in telecom, smart grid needs standards-based technologies to gain broad adoption. How does this spec make SNAP a better solution?

SNAP runs on the 802.15.4 IEEE standard. In addition, SNAP has a unique interoperability approach that is based on a remote procedure call architecture, like the Internet, and uses open source as the mechanism to interoperate. This gives amazing flexibility for interoperability because this open source software is downloadable to the nodes over the air! Combine that with seamless Internet interoperability and SNAP is well positioned from a standards standpoint. Open source is about as open as you can get!

Another element I find interesting is the ability to operate SNAP over the Internet. This can be very helpful for remote monitoring, and is a great example of how IP communications can help smart grid. What are some of the other capabilities this creates, and how interested are utilities in leveraging the Web for this?

M2M is all about data. Data that is isolated is not as effective as data that is available outside the local network. So SNAP provides this capability in a way that allows SNAP nodes to look like computers on a TCP/IP, Internet, network. By providing a gateway to the Internet, remote nodes can access or be accessed online with the security protected of course. This enables knowledge of data over a large area which generates better decisions. It also allows convenience like control of a thermostat from a web browser or your iPhone (News - Alert). With SNAP, you can access the network from anywhere.

We haven’t touched much on the wireless aspect of SNAP yet. Synapse uses a mesh network approach as well as peer-to-peer to ensure no single point of failure across your deployments. How do these elements help utilities with smart grid, and how do they compare to other approaches, especially Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi is a great wireless computer network solution but it was not designed for machine connection. We use it for bridging onto the Internet, with SNAP handling inside the building. With Wi-Fi, you have to deploy a repeater separate from end devices and configure it for your network. Configuring that is beyond the scope of what the average person knows how to do. 

With SNAP, the mesh network is easier to deploy than any other network we are aware of. No central coordinator is required, and all devices are peers. And no designated routers either; every node can route. So the first benefit is in ease of installation of the network. Turn a device on and it joins the network instantly and provides a mesh hop for other devices. This is all done automatically. In a nutshell, SNAP is much easier to install than Wi-Fi. This ease of installation is imperative if these smart grid devices are going to penetrate the home market. 

Mesh is quite different than large scale wireless networks like LTE (News - Alert), and has a distinct set of advantages. How well do utilities understand this, and does this pose challenges for Synapse in terms of market education?

This whole networking arena is massively complicated to understand.   Our focus has been largely on just the M2M arena and we use LTE, Wi-Fi or Ethernet as the bridge to the Internet.   This reduces the thought complexity considerably. We have a lot of teaching to do, but our partners including Panasonic (News - Alert), California Eastern Labs and Freescale, that also use SNAP are helping get the information out.

Overall, where do you see utilities gaining the most benefit from SNAP? Am wondering if it’s more for network management or home-based applications, and also how you see this mix of benefits evolving over time.

The benefits are the same no matter if you are in T&D or home-based. The ease of installation, robustness of peer to peer, the capability to download interoperability profiles over the air that are open source, battery powered mesh for remote controls and remote sensors and the ability to do all of this in an Internet-compatible way is a compelling reason for utilities to use SNAP. My mission is to see the smart grid use a strong, open, modern architecture as the foundation of the energy grid, and in our view, SNAP is one such modern network architecture they should be using.  

Jon Arnold (News - Alert) is co-founder of Intelligent Communications Partners (News - Alert) (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 Kelly McGuire

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