Similarities between Legacy Data Management Systems & the Electric Grid


Similarities between Legacy Data Management Systems & the Electric Grid

Posted by Marc Aubin on Oct 2, 2016 5:17:48 PM
Marc Aubin
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In the first post in this series, we established parallels between the American electricity industry and enterprise data management systems, like Salesforce.
America’s electricity grid is a big complicated system with many problems related to scale, electricity delivery, and utilization.

Enterprise information systems that govern our customer life cycle, from lead to cash and beyond, are also complicated systems with many problems related to scale, information delivery and utilization.

When talking about any complicated system, it’s helpful to look at the problems they are intended to solve (the system objectives), where they break down in meeting those objectives, and solutions for those gaps.

The Purpose of the Electric Grid

Simply put, the objective of the electric grid is to “keep the lights on”. It’s to deliver electricity to every power customer, whether they are homes or businesses. More specifically, the point of the electric grid is to integrate the multiple sources of electricity production into a seamless distribution system that instantaneously meets varying needs of power customers at all times. This is the magic of the grid. It’s also where things start to get complicated, and as we will see, it’s where things have been starting to break down in the past few decades.

The Purpose of Enterprise Data Management Systems

The objective of enterprise information systems is to support the many business processes necessary to manage the customer life cycle (i.e., customer life cycle management). This means creating a structure for everyone to work efficiently at any stage of any business process. It also means getting information into the right places (i.e., storage locations in, for example, a relational database) in an up-to-date fashion so it can be utilized at any stage. When these things go right, you can see what’s going on at any time in your business (i.e., your reports are accurate). You can mobilize the resources you need in your business to serve customers more effectively. You can do the right things at the right time.

As we will see, the complexity of the systems themselves and the users working with them are the primary strains contributing to business process inefficiencies and breakdown.

Why Things Are Breaking Down

In a nutshell there are a few reasons. We are working with old technology, and the consumers of those technologies are challenging all the assumptions that those systems were built upon.

The Electric Grid is Based on Old Technology

The electric grid today is largely based on the electric grid that came out of the Niagra Falls power plant in 1896.  This technology is best described by Gretchen Bakke in her book, The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future: “polyphase alternating current, oscillating at 60 cycles a second, produced by large power stations, transmitted by means of point-to-point high voltage wires, and distributed by networked and ringed lower-voltage delivery systems, standardized at 110 and 220 volts.” This technology was largely meant to supply power based on large fossil fuel, nuclear or hydroelectric plants. It was never designed to handle the challenges of widely distributed renewable energy sources, as we will see shortly.


Enterprise Data Management Systems Are Based on (Relatively) Old Technology

The term “old” is always highly relative in information technology. Ten years is like an eon. 

Most enterprise data management systems are built upon relational databases. In 1970, Edgar Codd invented the relational model for relational databases. The first data management systems were introduced in the 1970s, most notably Oracle in 1978 based on the SQL standard. Fast forward through the 1980s where we had the first GUI for working with “a database” with dBASE, and then the 1990s where ORM techniques helped object oriented programmers incorporate table data from relational databases into the objects that are the basis for the data management applications we are used to working with today, including Salesforce.


Indeed, Salesforce’s application architecture is primarily comprised of a good old fashioned relational database to store data, an implementation of ORM called Active Record to access single database rows and tables, and web programming techniques to create the UI for working with this data. It’s a pretty standard, tried and true Java pattern.

Old technology isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but usually it’s not meant to handle demands that the modern day throws at it. In the next post, we will look at why this old technology is falling down in the face of new stresses and demands.

Read the next post, Breakdowns in the Electric Grid and Enterprise Data Management.

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