Babel Buster Network Gateways: Big Features. Small Price.
Hartman, P E
As published in the
Over the last several years, a remarkable transition has begun in the building controls industry. We see it in what are called Web based control systems that permit operation over standard Web Browsers. In itself, a Web based system is not really much to be excited about. User-friendly human interfaces for building controls have been around a long time. The only real direct advantage of a Web based control interface is that because it uses standard Web browser software, no special software package is required for a computer to operate as a human interface terminal for the control system. Very few control systems really use more than a couple of human interface terminals anyway, so many in the industry are asking, "What's all the fuss about?"
The importance of this development is that it signals a very important transition within the controls industry. Integrating Web browser technologies into building controls marks the start of an inevitable convergence of the building controls industry with the more general information technology (IT) industry that is engulfing nearly every other business, personal and institutional data management activity in existence today. In short, the building controls industry is now on a path to enter the mainstream of information technology so that someday soon building control systems will likely lose much of their current separate identity, and what they now accomplish will be seen as just one or more additional applications on much larger building, corporate, or global information system - similar to making flight or hotel reservations, which has moved from stand alone reservation systems to become Internet based applications.
Some argue that this adoption of Web based systems is nothing new. After all, a few building control systems began using Ethernet, a fundamental building block of IT networks a decade ago. While that is true, there is a big difference between that movement and what is happening now. When the industry began working with Ethernet, there was little desire and almost no capability to share data with any foreign nodes (non-building controls nodes) on the network. Even manufacturers who shared the use of Ethernet communication backbones were very unlikely to be able to communicate over that medium. Thus the driving force beyond these previous uses of IT technologies was simply to borrow technologies that have already been developed into what continued to be a completely separate system architecture.
Building owners and managers are demanding Web based systems because they know they will be easier for their operators to use and such systems can also be integrated and supported more effectively in their scheme for overall facility management activities.
So, the present trend toward convergence is really being driven by the end users who demand building controls that are compatible with their other data management systems. This is an irreversible course, and building controls manufacturers have as a result already lost the capacity to steer away from it. This loss of control has been recently reinforced for me by the extreme negative reaction of the end users with whom I have talked about recent interviews in which control manufacturers have tried to rationalize the continuing use of proprietary features in their systems. The ploy of offering "open" systems that are not really open will be very short lived. It will not surprise to me if several of the manufacturers engaged in this marketing approach will literally be drummed out of business over the next few years. Meanwhile those that truly believe their business can only succeed if they implement features that discourage integration of their equipment with what they consider to be "competitive" components will see a continuing loss of market share to bolder businesses that understand the inevitability of the convergence with the IT industry that is taking place and resulting loss of a separate identity for building controls that will accompany this trend.
WHAT CONVERGENCE MEANS FOR BUILDING CONTROLS
This gives some idea of what this trend toward convergence is; a complete integration of building controls into much large information technology (IT) systems. But it begs an answer to the question "What changes can I expect from this trend so that I can benefit from them?" No one has a crystal ball to answer this, but at least some of where we will be traveling in the next few years can be gleaned from what we are already beginning to see now. As stated earlier, the primary driver for convergence between building controls and information technologies is coming from end users. Acting as catalysts are a diverse group of forward thinking building designers, IT department planners, other business consultants, and even some manufacturers. What I hear when I attend meetings about integrating building controls into my clients' IT network is almost a single note symphony - "Standards, standards and more standards!" Clients don't want to be tied to proprietary features associated with each manufacturer's control system. Instead, they are looking for systems that are developed entirely around recognized standard products or approaches that will enlarge their options for support and permit a more flexible future for their overall network.
As an example, consider how controls are now programmed. Every control system manufacturer has its own method of programming control sequences into their product - it's the product's control language. Some are better than others, and some manufacturers are rightly proud of the functionality and ease of use of their control language. But one huge drawback is associated with every single one of them. They are all proprietary! In order to make any changes, either a specially trained technician from the local representative must be hired, or the user must try to train his own staff. All of this is enormously expensive compared to the cost to use more standard languages, even though such languages may not contain the same features as these proprietary languages. So clients want my firm to select products that employ standard programming languages that may be more flexible than what is available in building control systems today, and are based on standard languages. This way they can hire individuals or firms that have knowledge in this language (as well as others they employ for their network) such that as much as possible of the integration of the building controls into their overall business network can be accomplished by firms other than the controls subcontractor who tends to be rather narrowly focused on building controls. This is a reasonable request that is very difficult to satisfy at present, but the demand will only grow in time.
When I follow what my clients are asking for to the logical conclusion, I see that their desire is for controls hardware and basic controls functions to become commodity products. This should surprise no one, because it is certainly the model for the greater IT and computing industry. However, it is most control manufacturers' worst nightmare because the whole business of every control manufacturer is based on hardware, and none that I know wants to become a commodity manufacturer. The bad news is that this is exactly where the industry has to go to satisfy its end users. Control hardware almost certainly needs to become completely interchangeable and so completely developed around recognized standards that it will very nearly lose any specific manufacturer's identity.
The controls manufacturers are being forced into a transition that will be of enormous benefit to our industry - a transition from being hardware based to software based. This will not be an easy transition, but it is an important one. At present the primary focus of control manufacturers and their local representatives is hardware connectivity. System function is almost an afterthought. Whenever this is suggested to manufacturers they are quite adamant that this is not the case, but consider some examples. An optimum start program is a staple of many control systems, but my experience is that these programs seldom really work effectively. In many, if not most applications that have employed such programs, I find the operators have over time disabled their use and simply start the building early enough that it becomes comfortable by the time most occupants arrive. The reasons for this are due to manufacturers' current misplaced emphasis. First, control system manufacturers don't really attribute revenue to much of their software development. Rather, the development and maintenance of such programs as optimum start is seen by many as overhead necessary to sell their control hardware, and keeping these costs as low as possible makes their hardware products more competitive. Second, the market for software products of each control manufacturer is currently limited to hardware products they make and is therefore both limited and without direct competition.
Consider how this may change as the industry transits from hardware to software value added products. Imagine that the transition has progressed sufficiently that control subcontractors can buy control roughly equivalent hardware as bare bones commodity products from at least several potential suppliers. Now we need an optimum start program for this application. Because the commodity hardware is based on standards, any one of a number of optimum start programs can be purchased and loaded onto the hardware platform. This raises the importance of the software product for its developers because there is revenue directly associated with it, and it also means that users can begin to compare competing products to find out which works best. It's not difficult to see that the present situation in which a large number of weak development and support efforts, each of which supply a relatively small closed market, are likely to be replaced by fewer development efforts each supplying a market of much larger potential size. The reason I suspect the number of development efforts will fall is that some currently involved will decide (or perhaps be forced by the market) to opt out of offering an optimum start program.
There is another very important potential benefit of this transition from a hardware to software focus that is the natural result of convergence with the IT industry - greater economy. Many modern damper actuators have all the processing capacity, the memory, and even the O/I capacity to perform the functions required of typical VAV box controllers. The extra hardware (the box controller) that is now supplied by the control system manufacturer is simply not necessary in many applications. The development of communications and programming standards would allow actuator manufacturers to offer the entire hardware platform for VAV box controls, ready for a variety of program options. This will eliminate some of the cost associated with building controls. Variable speed drives and other smart devices offer similar economies by providing processing, and I/O capabilities. The use of smart devices has the potential of simplifying and reducing the costs associated with the hardware configuration of future building control systems.
This then becomes a future to which everyone in the industry can look forward with anticipation. It is a path toward satisfying end users demands for convergence with the IT industry and also refocusing our industry on system function instead of simple connectivity. Transiting to this future will be challenging for all of us. Control manufacturers will be required to completely reinvent their business model. Designers will have to dramatically widen their scope of control consulting services to include network integration of the building controls with the chosen facility network, and users will have lead in coordinating their building controls with the wider need for integration requirements of their other business activities. None of this is easy, but all of it is doable. And from what we are seeing right now from the leading users, there really is no other choice.
MILESTONE FOR CHANGE
For an industry that has been rather immune to dramatic change for many years, such changes may seem unlikely. This industry has heard about dire needs for change before and has largely moved along unchanged for several generations. However, the confluence of a number of issues makes the necessity of change as a result of convergence with the IT industry very compelling. Countering resistance that may crop up within the industry will be forces from the outside that are already sniffing around our industry for new opportunities. Hardware and software manufacturers from other industries are already thinking about entering the building controls industry, and to the extent they can provide the compatibility with IT architecture and software that end users are demanding, they will drive the industry powerfully into this transition associated with the convergence. IT network consultants are interested in taking a much larger role in developing and overseeing the implementation of comfort system function as a network application. These firms will either drive industry designers to take more interest in comfort system function and network services, or drive them out of the business altogether - turning them into low level layout specialists that simply fit the needed pipes, wires and equipment into each building.
This competition that is now beginning to enter our industry will one way or another accelerate change. There simply is no turning back. Ten years from now, I predict the convergence with IT networks and associated transitions required by our industry will be very nearly complete. It will not be a linear process, but rather will see enormous change in the last part of that time. Then depending on the growth of enabling technologies in that time, we could see a period of stability for some time to come.
SUMMING IT UP
The current trend toward Web based building controls signals the start of an inevitable convergence with the IT industry, and along with it dramatic transitions for all of us who are active in the industry. This process should be encouraged because it means system function, which is currently very much undervalued will become an important focus as a part of this important convergence.
If you are not fond of change then the next decade will be painful but if you are excited by new directions, new capabilities, and new relationships you are posed for a fantastic time. It will be a time of self-discovery for us as an industry as we go where no one has gone before, meshing dynamic data and real time interactions with the building occupants' standardized network interfaces. This new direction will not only change us it will have significant impact on how our building owning clients approach building management and optimization. The guidance of successful convergence will become a valuable art. The practitioners that can create this dynamic interface art while making the myriad of complex technologies used to create this reality all but invisible will be the clear winners. To the companies and their artisans who move us ahead with successful demonstrations will go increased market share. New relationships and partnering will abound. Smaller and smaller companies will provide greater impact on the industry through online interactions that become available with web-based presentation. The large financial identities will attempt to maintain, restore, and recreate their monopolies by buying the fluid web-based upstarts, but the sheer numbers and flexibilities of these new companies will overwhelm them. The concept of partnering to provide our clients' complex requested software functionality will become common These partnerships will lead to significant cross-pollination with complete new technologies and concepts all which will feed the convergence fire. New mediums for our industry such as cell phones, PDA, Digital Signage Systems, etc will also appear.
The reality is the convergence of facilities management and Information Technology (IT) is well underway. It is a convergence that heralds the inevitable move of environmental monitoring and control onto the buildings information infrastructure. Though it is often the technological issues that are stressed, it is a convergence of both technology and working relationships.
Thomas Hartman, P.E.
While the convergence of the IT and building controls will certainly result in many challenges for our industry, these are small when compared with the enormous new opportunities that convergence is creating for us. To start, convergence affords this industry the opportunity to do our job much better. Comfort and environmental quality continue to be major issues occupants have regarding the buildings they inhabit. And rightly so, because the level of comfort and air quality instrumentation and control implemented in buildings today continues to be minimal. Many, if not most, spaces in modern buildings are not even monitored for their temperature. Convergence offers the opportunity to simplify and reduce the cost of such instrumentation and improved zone control by offering simple and inexpensive methods of connectivity and processing capacity needed to operate building comfort systems more effectively. But more than this, convergence is beginning to allow building occupants to have a direct dialog with their comfort system using their PCs to ask for warmer, cooler, brighter or darker spaces. And convergence offers an improved path for automatically acting on those occupant requests to be certain each building occupant is served more effectively and efficiently. These are enormous opportunities because the need has gone unsatisfied for many years. It is a market that is continually growing while it waits to be served.
Convergence also offers radical improvement potentials for system maintenance. Local and wide area network connections allow maintenance specialists to maintain more equipment more effectively than ever before. Maintenance costs can be dramatically reduced while at the same time system reliability will be substantially improved. Convergence promises to dramatically change the way equipment is operated and maintained, yielding far greater economy without sacrificing oversight and response time.
Finally, convergence promises to bring building operations into the business network so that the many tasks associated with owning or managing commercial properties can become fully automated network applications rather then tedious manual undertakings. Convergence makes all of this possible by bringing in new low cost technologies and products to integrate with the special features and functions required for building operations. The potential is nearly overwhelming, and we have the opportunity to make it happen!
"Identifying the Complex Components of Convergence" Ken Sinclair, Editor/Owner, AutomatedBuildings.com
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