Inside GE's Digital Solutions unit: Talking IoT development with Ganesh Bell

GE launched a broad effort last year to bring digital transformation to utilities. Here's a look at how it's going, developer recruitment, IoT, security, cloud and analytics.

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General Electric has created its GE Digital Solutions unit within GE Power and put enterprise software veteran Ganesh Bell in charge.

The aim: Bring the Internet of things, cloud and analytics to utilities to create better services and new business models. In September, GE outlined its Digital Power Plant suite and now has 15 new customers on the platform.

In addition, GE has launched an alliance program to grow the digital industrial ecosystem. We caught up with Bell, chief digital officer for GE Power's Digital Solutions division, to chat about digitizing utilities, recruiting developers and transforming GE's software business. Here's a recap.

Where do Digital Power Plant implementations stand? GE Digital has added 15 new customers for its Digital Power Plant cloud software and they are in various states of deployment. Bell said GE's goal is to make the entire power plant--operations and IT--digital and connect the entire stack, which includes cloud to sensors to machines in the system like turbines. "We are providing a digital industrial stack," said Bell. Specifically, GE is offering three categories of cloud applications covering asset performance management, operations optimization and business optimization to improve profitability. Bell said that enterprises are accustomed to enterprise resource planning software but there hasn't been a direct comparison in utilities. "Information technology and operations technology have been separate. We need to bridge this device," said Bell.

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Will attacks on critical infrastructure rise in the future? Given utilities are connecting operations and IT, there are natural security concerns. Bell addressed the issue head on and stated the reality that assets are already connected. For instance, the Target breach was enabled by an HVAC system. "We believe attacks are happening, have already happened and companies have no idea," said Bell. "It doesn't matter if we don't connect to IoT or the cloud. We believe assets are already connected to the data networks." Bell added that a connected application or asset is a safer one because it can be updated quickly. GE has a cybersecurity suite to protect assets GE made or not and Bell noted that utilities all realize that they need end-to-end security.

Are utilities doing enough to protect networks? Bell said a lot of customers are smart about cybersecurity and most have strong IT security practices. What needs to happen is the operations technology security has to bridge to the IT practices. "The operations side is catching up," he said. The other wrinkle here is the role of the government given that utility cyberattacks can be carried out by state actors. Bell said there are a number of private-public initiatives revolving around cybersecurity.

Also: GE's Immelt on software strategy: 'Why not us?' | GE forms GE Digital, aims to be top 10 software company | GE unveils Digital Power Plant in anticipation of greater energy demands | GE CEO makes case for industrial Internet, analytics opportunities | GE unveils Predix Cloud for industrial data, analytics

What's the development cycle for utilities? Bell said that GE's cloud applications have quarterly updates for algorithms, analytics signatures and other features. On a monthly basis, there are smaller updates. "All of our customers going on Predix are going to cloud to get updates and innovation," said Bell. GE's cloud tools for utilities revolve around an edge architecture that connects to hybrid environments via local code on devices. There are also scenarios where analytics is run more locally so it can be closer to the machine being analyzed. Bell made an analogy to Nest, which has its own OS, but connects to the cloud, which has a faster cadence.

How has the developer recruiting gone? Bell said developer recruitment has changed a bit from when he was called to take a position at GE about two years ago. "When GE called me first, the recruiter had to explain why he was even calling me," said Bell. Today, there are a lot of non-technology companies recruiting developers. "A lot of developers want to build something purposeful. And you get to work on IoT, big data, cloud and all of those things, but you're connecting to a purpose built application." Bell said the company is in the process of building digital hubs in places such as Europe, Asia and Boston. He added that the GE Digital Alliance, a partner network, will also build the ecosystem.

What kind of developers are you attracting? Bell said GE has been attracting a "healthy mix of talent" from everything from startups to enterprise software veterans to companies like Google. How? Bell said GE's location in the East Bay has been an advantage. The East Bay had a history of enterprise software talent and many developers have to commute to the Valley or San Francisco. "We offer a shorter and easier commute," said Bell. "Location has been an advantage." Oakland is also an easy hop.

How is analytics for utilities different? Bell said that traditional business analytics has typically revolved around information that has been delivered by humans or a business process. "There just aren't the large volumes of data," said Bell. "Utilities have machine data that's very large. A single turbine with 3,000 sensors can generate 45GB of data a day on things like heat, air, and material fatigue." Analytics for that environment really has to revolve around unstructured information and finding patterns. One technique GE uses is to use data to create a digital twin--a virtual copy of a physical asset to run what-if scenarios. Analytics has to connect physics, the machine and data. "Facebook understands the social graph. LinkedIn understands the professional graph. We understand the industrial asset graph," he said.

What inning is IoT in for the energy market? "We're in the national anthem," quipped Bell. "The market opportunity is big for the value our customers can create. But we didn't decide to do this because it's a big market. We got here because customers were asking for bigger outcomes and for us to provide the hardware and software. It's very early days."

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