August 2014

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How do you Spell IoT for Smart Buildings?

The backdrop today is the huge IT-sponsored IoT marketing and awareness campaign, which would have you believe that Smart Building Analytics are an IT invention.

Therese Sullivan

Therese Sullivan,


Contributing Editor

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All the Big IT companies are running campaigns touting their role in the coming Internet of Things (IoT) computing era. A common vision is that software, particularly mobile apps, will reign supreme over embedded systems-on-a-chip, sensors, wireless communications and other components making more of the physical world digitally addressable thus bringing greater productivity, health, comfort and efficiency to users – and bringing new $trillions into IT. For the most part, the campaigns gloss over the fact that the control and automation world — or OT (operations technology) — has been integrating and maintaining systems that meet most of these IoT criteria for decades. Almost as soon as Internet backbones were installed into buildings, for example, the most forward-thinking building system integrators were developing and deploying web services to monitor, analyze and act on the data streaming from building equipment in the interest of greater energy efficiency and comfort for occupants. These early web apps have evolved into building operational analytics managed in the cloud and delivered to the phones and tablets of always-on-the-go facility operators.

Big IoT
Internet of Things as brought to you by IT companies.
Great marketing, but skewed.

All this is happening, driven by the same building automation, facility system integration and energy management service firms that have long led the push for standard protocols and open data sharing in buildings. It’s been a slog for these relatively-small, often regionally-focused, and vertical-industry-focused OT firms. They’ve had to navigate relationships with big equipment makers to tap silo-ed data stores and develop cutting-edge IT skills in-house.  All this work deserves its rightful recognition.  But, the backdrop today is the huge IT-sponsored IoT marketing and awareness campaign, which would have you believe that Smart Building Analytics are an IT invention. As long as all the marketing leads to substantive progress in building energy efficiency, does it really matter?

I’ve been thinking about this in light of the US General Services Administration’s (GSA’s) Smart Buildings Analytics project. This project might be as close to a ‘No Spin Zone’ for building operational analytics at portfolio-wide scale as exists in the United States today. In May 2012, IBM was awarded the GSA fulfillment contract and it brought in partner ESI — one of these OT pioneers. The scope of the first phase of the project was to bring 55 GSA buildings around the country under better control through data analytics. At the 2014 Building Energy Summit in April, IBM and ESI presented a status report on the project, and this presentation has just been posted on youtube with accompanying slides available from the Summit’s organizer, CoR Advisors. So we can all see for ourselves how the project is balancing its Big IT and OT components. I’ll say that if you do an IT vs. OT  analysis of this content – glancing slide-by-slide or frame-by-frame in the video – it’s more OT than IT. But, again – not the point.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Notably, in late 2011, IBM did a lot of marketing about its own Intelligent Building Management Software. Despite this marketing blitz, for the GSA project, ESI took the operational analytics lead deploying the SkySpark’s analytics engine from SkyFoundry. The architecture called for the information about equipment maintenance needs and energy usage trend data to be streamed to the IBM Workplace Management suite for further decision making. Familiar to CTO’s and CFO’s, the Integrated Workplace Management software category is a flavor of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software with custom-tailoring for facilities/real estate managers that want support in making financial decisions that relate to building and equipment assets, utility costs and carbon management reporting. IBM acquired TRIRIGA in 2011 to improve its offering and competitive position in this category.

The presentation gives a snapshot of the GSA project about 18 months in. IBM and ESI have proved the case for their Big Data approach to building energy efficiency, finding and correcting typical energy and money wasters like stuck dampers on air handlers and cases of simultaneous heating and cooling.  More than that, the GSA project has revealed the real delimiting factor in continuing the data-driven approach. It’s not about IT or about OT – or about technology at all. Rather it’s about people and skills. Current facilities and building operations personal need retraining, or new digital natives need to be attracted into the profession. If the glossy and pervasive IoT awareness campaign can do this, everybody wins. Cheerios didn’t invent oats, but a great marketing campaign did get more kids to eat them.  John Petze of SkyFoundry offers some great insight into the necessary mindset in his article “Considering Analytics? Start By Assessing Your Data Maturity Level.”   Like other OT experts, he offers the message:  Be inspired. There’s a great future in Buildings IoT.  But be realistic too.


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