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Interview - December 2003
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Control Solutions, Inc. – Minnesota

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EMAIL INTERVIEW Paul Ehrlich and Ken Sinclair

Paul EhrlichWhat is oBIX? 

oBIXPaul Ehrlich is a Business Development Leader with Trane's Global Controls business unit. Paul has held a number of positions with Trane centered on the definition and development of Trane control products. In his present role he is involved with discovering the customer needs and potential technologies that will be used for the next generation of Trane controls. Prior to working for Trane he worked for Johnson Controls providing solutions to existing building owners.

In addition to projects at Trane Paul is also involved with various industry groups involved in the creation of new automation standards and technologies. This includes chairing an ASHRAE committee on DDC controls and serving as chairman of oBIX (Open Building Information Xchange).


Sinclair:  What is oBIX? 

Ehrlich:  oBIX stands for Open Building Information Xchange, and it is an industry-wide initiative to define XML- and Web Services-based mechanisms to present building systems-related information on TCP/IP networks such as the Internet.

Sinclair:  Why is oBIX important? 

Ehrlich:  The IT industry is adopting XML and Web Services as a critical technology for connectivity on the Internet as well as on corporate networks. Many significant industries that desire to leverage the Internet are also adopting XML and Web Services as a platform for exchanging information. While the decision of adopting XML/Web Services is a no-brainer, doing so without defining schemas and other cooperation standards does little to enable integration and interoperation in the building industry. oBIX is working to define such a mechanism specifically for the building systems industry.

Sinclair:  In a nutshell, what is XML? 

Ehrlich:  Let's start with HTML. HTML is an Internet protocol all about controlling the display of information on Web pages such as this article. HTML deals with the size of text, font, color, display of pictures as well as hyperlinks. In contrast, XML is a protocol about raw data. It does not concern itself with display attributes, so a piece of XML information would simply say that a temperature is 72°F. It will be up to the recipient to decide what to do with that data. This makes XML ideally suitable for machine-to-machine communication whereas HTML suits machine-to-human.

Sinclair:  How does oBIX relate to CABA? 

Ehrlich:  CABA was instrumental in creating a committee in April 2003 at BuilConn in Dallas, TX, and this committee - the XML/Web Services Guideline Committee - started the work that is now known as oBIX. CABA is the host of oBIX, meaning that CABA facilitates the work of the oBIX group, provides some services, and generally nurtures the group's activities in the industry.

Sinclair:  How does oBIX relate to LONMARK® and BACnet®? 

Ehrlich:  While many debate the strengths and weaknesses of LONMARK and BACnet, it is clear that neither one was designed for the Internet. Both appeared on the scene in the early to mid 90's when the significance of the Internet to buildings was not as profound as it is today. oBIX is working with both LONMARK and BACnet groups to enable oBIX to be THE vehicle that their systems can be taken to the TCP/IP layer in a consistent manner, a vehicle that can also be integrated with legacy/proprietary systems as well as future "native" TCP/IP control systems.

Sinclair:  Does oBIX allow LONMARK and BACnet systems to work together? 

Ehrlich:  The initial work of oBIX will be to define a set of point data structures that are most commonly used when interfacing systems, with higher level EAI (Enterprise Application Integration) systems and integrated operation functions such as HMI/GUI systems. Such systems typically do not care if the information it seeks comes from a LONMARK, BACnet, proprietary or pure TCP/IP data system. It must be pointed out that this level of integration does not present the rich data structures within each of the systems such as internal PID loop parameters or many of the object properties available in LONMARK and BACnet systems.

Tridium Sinclair:  Is oBIX typically used for integration? 

Ehrlich:  Yes, for integration of systems and the ability for the systems to provide relevant data to enterprise systems that many corporations now have.

Sinclair:  Explain the relevance of the Enterprise to buildings and HVAC. 

Ehrlich:  Enterprise systems are making a huge impact on corporations and other types of non-profit organizations including business financial systems, CRM (customer relationship management), human resources, and supply chain management. Companies like SAP, Oracle, IBM as well as the consulting groups such as EDS are providing integration services to make organizations very efficient. Buildings and facilities are now a significant area for organizations to include in such enterprise systems; corporations now appreciate that the effectiveness of their facilities can make a huge difference to their bottom line. There is currently no easy way for IT departments-whose responsibility it is to make all this happen-to integrate their systems with the systems that run, manage and monitor their buildings and facilities. What's important to note is that this has to be done on the IT department's terms using their language, rules, standards and tools, and XML and Web Services have been created specifically to solve this kind of problem. oBIX is an initiative to use these technologies for building systems, and the IT folk will be very happy about this.

Sinclair:  Give me examples of how buildings and enterprise need to be connected. 

Ehrlich:  Campus scheduling is a clear example. A system that can reserve a meeting room can automatically schedule the environmental, lighting and security systems to adjust themselves on the basis of knowing when the room will be in use, and all this information is tied into the corporate scheduling, telephone conference, A/V resources and so on. Another great example would be multi-unit businesses such as fast-food establishments, banks, etc. These building types have a need to provide energy usage at the month's end to the enterprise systems monitoring the profitability of each and all units, or maybe even correlate the level of business to weather conditions outside and inside each retail unit.

Sinclair:  Will oBIX deal with rich data as in the profiles of LONMARK and BACnet? 

Ehrlich:  With time, oBIX will look at how best to provide more value for the industry. While providing the rich data seems appealing, it brings with it some inherent challenges such as the need for network and other management tools. These tools already exist in different areas such as LONMARK, BACnet and proprietary systems so the immediate value of oBIX spending effort in this area seems questionable at this point.

Sinclair:  When can we expect to see the standards defined? 

Ehrlich:  There is a great deal of anticipation that much of the work can be accomplished in the first half of 2004. The group has a significant opportunity at BuilConn in April which will be the first anniversary of oBIX. If the work is not complete by that time, there will be significant progress that would be subject for discussion at that industry meeting.

alpscontrols.com Sinclair:  Will oBIX become a formal standard? 

Ehrlich:  The group, as well as CABA strongly feels that once the bulk of the work is accomplished, oBIX can be taken to one of the Internet standards bodies for it to become a formal standard. With whom and under what circumstances is not known at this time. The group is focusing its efforts to perform the valuable work necessary in the first instance.

Sinclair:  To what extent will this impact the HVAC industry? 

Ehrlich:  XML and oBIX will have a very significant effect on HVAC, especially in how HVAC systems are integrated with other systems, into the rest of the building systems, and more importantly with the enterprise systems. Without oBIX, these tasks are difficult to do. With oBIX and assuming the proliferation of XML, these tasks become very easy. Integrators will be able to create richer cross-systems and cross discipline web sites to satisfy users' needs.

Sinclair:  How can I be involved with oBIX? 

Ehrlich:  Visit the oBIX web site ( www.obix.org ) and join the bulletin board for discussions on oBIX. To be more involved, join one of the task groups. Contact information is provided on the web site.


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