Monday, September 7, 2009

Smart Grid Ontogeny need not Recapitulate Internet Phylogeny

Many years ago, French physician and embryologist Etienne Serres suggested that more advanced species passed through the developmental stages of their evolutionary chain as they came into existence. This was later summed up into the (incorrect) axiom, "Ontogeny (development and growth) recapitulates Phylogeny (evolution)", by Ernst Haeckel, known as the "Recapitulation Theory". While disproven to the satisfaction of most scientists years ago, it seems that Drs. Serres and Haeckel may have an angle on the growth of the Smart Grid.

During the early growth of internetworking, there were centers of computing power, and within them, commuities that wished to be united with other similar groups. More importantly, there were those that simply understood that such communication was possible, and they worked to try to accomplish it. In 1969, the very young arpanet had four nodes on it. There was already growing computing power, but the connection of the vast majority of those systems, and any sense of potential for heterogeneity was clearly a thing for the future. This picture, from the Computer History Museum provides a cocktail napkin's view of how simple the Internet's beginnings were


That network would grow in 20 years to have hundreds of thousands of nodes, as individuals and organizations created applications and infrastructure to support a new generation of businesses and communications. Sadly, though, along the way there were a generation of mishaps, from the Morris worm, to CodeRed, to identity theft and denial of service attacks.

The evolution of the Internet has been a bumpy one. When things are so exciting, so much is possible, and when there is unlimited fuel (in this case venture capital and rising stock values) it is hard to keep organizations focused on doing things safely.

The Smart Grid is at the launching pad of a similar accelerated evolution. Interest in renewables and political capital are combining with environmental passions, grant money, and a green field industry. If one believes that recapitulation theory is inevitable, we will simply accept that the growth of the Smart Grid will demonstrate all of the flaws and weaknesses of the Internet as it matures. Haeckel and Serres posited that there was one basic form that organisms began with, and that such a form was then morphed into whatever being was under development. Many view the Smart Grid in the same way, that it is an infrastructure, much like the existing Grid, or the Internet, or both, and therefore it will necessarily experience many, if not all of the same bumps. I don't think it has to.

Biological recapitulation is largely discredited because it was provable that humans never had the scales of early reptiles, or mammalian teeth while in the womb, or other clearly identifiable earmarks of adults of more primitive species. I would ask that we think of all of the earmarks of the problems of the Internet's growth be examined; insecure configurations, poor access control, and unexamined software and systems, and that these issues be removed. Let us prove that Smart Grid development will not recapitulate the Internet's evolution, because we have learned from that experience, and now have the power to skip those steps as we move on to the next phase of power creation, consumption, and distribution.

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