British Gas is a long-standing and well-established corporation in the UK, providing gas and electricity to 3.4 million customers across the nation.
V3 spoke to David Cooper, chief information officer at British Gas, to discuss the use of technology at the firm.
The government is driving the rollout of smart meters so that people can be kept informed of their energy consumption and receive fairer bills from energy suppliers, and British Gas has worked on systems that harness the large amount of data harvested by these Internet of Things devices.
"British Gas is incredibly positive about smart metering and everything that comes with it. One of our biggest complaints from our customers has always been about estimated bills," said Cooper.
"We installed about 1.5 million smart meters, and I think we've got to roll out 15 million in total, so we have some phenomenal rollout rates. But it makes a difference [to consumers] because you actually pay for what you use, you can actually be billed for what you use, you can see your consumption," he said.
Cooper explained that big data is not over-hyped, and is something British Gas is tapping into with its smart home plans.
"We have a vast amount of data that we take in compared to what we did in the past, and we have to analyse that to offer our customers smart energy reports. We can analyse your usage by day, and using sophisticated analytics we can try to estimate what you've used the power on. The more you tell us about your home the more tailored that report," he said.
Adopting open source
Smart meters result in British Gas being inundated with large amounts of data from sensors and energy consumption readings that needs to be turned into insightful information that can be passed on to customers and used to deliver a better service.
To deal with this Cooper and his IT team turned to open source software, systems and frameworks, rather than standard products and additional computing power from traditional IT suppliers.
"To analyse this quantity of data we have built a data lake, which is effectively based on the big data technologies used at a lot of the social media sites and Google and Yahoo. A lot of these guys all use the same technology, which is about splitting the problem into parallel [parts]," Cooper explained.
"In the past, you used to buy bigger and bigger computers [for data storage and processing]. Now you just break the job up and send it to lots of smaller parallel computers and add the answers up at the end, and that's what we do.
"We use Hadoop and we use a lot of open source technologies now, which is probably not what you'd think. FTSE companies are now using more of the leading edge [technologies] and less of the big analytics blocks people used to buy."
Cooper said that using open source meant that British Gas did not need to build database systems and big data clusters completely from scratch, thereby cutting down the cost and resources of handling vast amounts of data.
The falling costs of hardware and compute power has allowed data-reliant companies like Google and Facebook to split data processing across many small machines rather than crunching everything in one place, and British Gas has followed their lead.
"The [products] corporates used 10-15 years ago were based on the best architecture at the time from the point of view of compute power and memory," he said.
"You used to solve a problem in a particular way based on what infrastructure was available to you, and what happened over the last 10 years was that the cost of the infrastructure at the bottom end has become incredibly cheap, therefore you can change the problem around."
Cooper explained that British Gas has embraced the cheaper hardware which can be combined with open source software to create a big data system that is more affordable than buying a full database from IT vendors.
"Some of these [products] are maturing at such a rate that, for us as a business, it can solve the problem faster and cheaper," he added, noting that using open source allows the company to tap into the mass combined knowledge of open source communities.
"You're actually leveraging more intellectual horsepower to solve the problem," he added.
Connected homes and the cloud
Open source technology can also be combined with cloud services to enhance British Gas's work on connected and smart homes.
"A lot of this technology we are using in our connected homes environment as well," he said. "One of the things we do in connected homes is learn patterns of behaviour. We need the compute power to be able to [do this]."
The British Gas Hive home heating control kit can learn a customer's pattern of behaviour and heating needs by monitoring the position of their smartphone and adjusting the heating accordingly, and Cooper said that traditional systems do not support such technology.
British Gas has embraced the use of cloud platform services from Microsoft and Amazon Web Services to gain access to the scalable computing power they offer.
"We are also using cloud services, Amazon, Azure, where you need peaks in compute power at certain points in the day, but the rest of the time you don't need them," he said.
"So we are using the newer and advanced technologies to help solve our problems."
No skills gap here
Using the latest technology requires an IT team with strong and up-to-date technical and digital skills. The technology industry bemoans an IT skills gap in the UK at the moment, but British Gas has not had difficulty finding and training skilled workers.
"We haven't really had a problem with finding the skills. Part of this is about making [British Gas] a good place to work and develop skills and grow," he said.
"We take people on who don't have formal training, IT skills, etc. And we have people who do have some skills and want to retrain in some areas, so we have an apprenticeship programme and a graduate programme.
"We have been able to build a lot of this technology on a mix of skills between some existing professionals that we have, some new people coming in, and apprentices and graduates.
"In some ways people with more mature skills in the IT market find it slightly harder to grasp the new concepts. If you never knew anything about Oracle databases and SQL the new world looks eminently sensible to you. So you do tailor your approach depending on what problem you're solving."
British Gas encouraged its IT and technical teams to be more innovative by giving out Raspberry Pi devices to staff, some of whom got together and made a Hadoop big data cluster out of the tiny single board computers.
"When you take away some of the shackles that corporates impose on people, it's amazing what human beings can do," he said, noting British Gas's ambitions to develop the skills of its staff.
British Gas already uses big data, the Internet of Things and cloud computing, and V3 was curious as to where the company is going next with technology.
Cooper said that the combination of these technologies allows British Gas to look at doing more with data. This will involve opening access to data on mobile devices to assist engineers and staff in the field so that they gain better insights into customers' needs and relay information about the service being used and energy consumed in a more effective way.
"Now you can have any device connected and any view of the data, such that you can do the correct thing for the customer and answer the customer's questions, so we better serve our customers," he said.
"As we unlock this data it should enable British Gas to better service customers and also find opportunities to grow."
Users are told that their non-existent 'iPhoneID' is expiring soon
Expansion of SDK intended to expand Amazon Alexa ecosystem
Locky returns from a prolonged rest with two new variants
AMD lambasted over Radeon RX Vega pricing that will add an extra £100 to RX Vega 56 and 64 graphics cards
Company accused of failing to tell anyone that the launch prices were only introductory offers