Esri’s Utility Network – Why and When?

Esri’s Utility Network (UN) marks a significant milestone in the development of GIS for utilities. Having managed two UN implementation projects to date, I would like to share a real-world understanding of both the benefits of this new technology and the drivers for when a utility should make the switch.

The Benefits – Why should utilities be interested in the UN? From my perspective the benefits include several key features that support utilities’ ability to serve customers more effectively, reduce risk, and manage their assets in real time – while simplifying the enterprise geospatial landscape. Three things stand out to me:

  • Network as a Service: Esri has expanded on the concept of GIS services by exposing not just network features, but the network itself – advanced network tracing, network analytics, and connectivity rules including terminal configurations. The full functionality of the network is available across the enterprise allowing applications such as an OMS to read the network and run traces in real time, or DMS to read current system configurations. This integration approach also simplifies integrations and improves supportability by eliminating backend data ETLs.
  • Enhanced Data Model: The UN can now model networks in greater detail and integrate more directly with other enterprise systems such as EAM, CMS and risk models. The UN facilitates whole-system modeling by allowing both distribution and transmission systems to be contained in a single network model. In addition, it supports modeling of station assets with greater asset detail and the ability to accurately represent tightly grouped assets in their true location in 3D.
  • The UN streamlines application development and deployment by building applications from a common platform. Users can create, analyze, and share network data from web, desktop and mobile applications. Organizations can leverage pre-built Esri solutions to support workflows for damage assessment, map corrections, gas relights, etc. Or new applications can be developed quickly for users across the enterprise: an outage app for customer service reps, a network analysis app for planners, a barcode scanning app for inspectors, and many more.

Esri Utility Network Specialty Logo

The Timing – What is the right time to do your UN upgrade? Having participated in dozens of GIS upgrade projects over the course of 20+ years in the industry, I consider a UN upgrade to be typical in terms of changes to data and applications. At a high level, the big changes include the consolidation of the data model into several primary feature classes, the development of UN based network rules, the “all services” model, and the required use of ArcGIS Pro. Each of these elements need to be planned for in terms of integrations, data management, application updates, and of course, change management. With that in mind, here are several considerations for timing your upgrade:

  • Related Projects: Related projects such as EAM upgrades, Smart Grid initiatives, and process streamlining can be significantly enhanced through the capabilities of the UN.  Having the UN in place beforehand to support (and maybe even help jump start) those initiatives adds significant value on both sides. From the opposite perspective, trying to implement the UN after other related projects have wrapped up is an invitation for rework and potentially missing out on some of the benefits the UN provides.
  • Technology Debt: Enterprise GIS pain points are often the result of deferred upgrades and the over reliance on various “band-aids” to keep older technology working – which in turn compound problems by increasing complexity. In that scenario, it makes sense to add the UN upgrade to the GIS roadmap sooner rather than later, since deferring an upgrade increases maintenance costs and adds to the technology debt and risk. An upgrade not only relieves these pain points but provides an opportunity to fundamentally streamline the GIS platform.
  • A Planned Upgrade: It may be obvious, but a planned upgrade is a good opportunity to make a switch to the UN. That said, some organizations are approaching the UN cautiously and doing incremental upgrades. This approach can make sense – and every organization needs to fit the puzzle pieces together in a way that works for them – but going directly to the UN should be considered. Strategic upgrades are certainly preferable to “just going for it” – either incrementally or directly to the UN.

With two UN upgrades under my belt, I am more likely to encourage clients to consider moving to the UN sooner rather than later.  Not only has the upgrade process been more straightforward than I might have imagined, but I have a greater appreciation for the substantial enterprise benefits of this new technology.