February 2015
Interview

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Sohrab ModiEMAIL INTERVIEWSohrab Modi and Ken Sinclair

Sohrab Modi, Chief Technology Officer, is responsible for leading Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technical strategy at Echelon Corp. An experienced technical executive, he holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Mumbai and a master’s degree in computer science from the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology.

Contact him at smodi@echelon.com


Jumping on the Industrial Internet of Things Bandwagon

Spurring greater convergence of existing and new building automation systems is a crucial step toward realizing the full potential of the IIoT.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is the next big wave in commercial building automation. Accenture recently released research forecasting that the IIoT could drive many trillions of dollars in economic growth worldwide in the next 15 years.

We asked Sohrab Modi, Chief Technology Officer of Echelon Corp., a leader in IIoT device connectivity, about some of the challenges and opportunities in commercial building automation and the IIoT.

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SinclairHow is the Industrial IoT different from the consumer IoT?

ModiThe operational demands of the IIoT are much more stringent than for the consumer Internet of Things (IoT), which includes things such as integrated home heating and security controls, or health monitoring systems. The IIoT requires nearly flawless reliability and security, which means you can’t depend entirely on wireless connectivity. So both wired and wireless connectivity must be used in many IIoT applications such as commercial building automation.

From a technology standpoint, the consumer IoT is a classic greenfield opportunity, while the IIoT is primarily a brownfield environment. In building automation alone, hundreds of millions of networked devices are already in place. It’s important that IIoT solutions integrate and build on these existing devices

Today’s commercial and industrial devices are connected via siloed Operational Technology (OT) networks. To become part of the IIoT, these legacy OT networks must operate in conjunction with modern Information Technology (IT) infrastructures.

SinclairHow would you characterize the higher-level promise of the IIoT in building automation? Put another way, why is the IIoT even worth pursuing?

ModiThe IIoT is about the convergence of systems and technologies that previously were separate. For instance, the promise of the IIoT in building automation includes convergence of all the currently disparate sub-systems: HVAC, lighting, security, elevators, window blinds and shades, detection of fire and noxious gases, and so on.

To put it into OT/IT terms, commercial buildings are filled with OT networks whose multiple, incompatible protocols have kept the networks distinct from one another. Integration of these legacy systems is crucial for building owners’ ability to leverage their investments in these systems. And the best way to do that is through integration with modern converged IT infrastructures, and convergence onto a common platform.

At a higher level, the reason to pursue OT/IT convergence is to achieve benefits such as greater efficiency, cost-effectiveness, overall business value, tenant comfort and safety, and other quality-of-life improvements.

SinclairAre there any historical models for this kind of convergence?

ModiAbsolutely. The computer networking world of the 1980s and 1990s saw the convergence of previously siloed systems when mainframes, minicomputers and personal computers converged with the beginnings of the Internet and the World Wide Web. We all know the impact that the web has had.

But the impact of the IoT and IIoT is expected to be even greater. In an October 2014 article in the Harvard Business Review, Simona Jankowski of Goldman Sachs provided the following context:

Computer networking convergence in the 1980s depended on a common infrastructure: Internet Protocol, or IP. That same infrastructure is acting as a grand unifying platform in the IoT and IIoT.

SinclairWhat are some of the practical challenges in integrating older technology with the new?

ModiAutomation within buildings is still very fragmented. Lighting, security, HVAC, elevator and other systems each have their own networks, their own protocols, and their own sets of data they collect and use.

When you talk about the IIoT, you’re adding other layers of activities and technologies that include sensing, computing, communications, analytics and automated actions. When each of these technologies remains separate from the others, it’s not possible to have a fully functioning IIoT.

Melding the worlds of OT and IT presents significant challenges, largely because so many OT devices were put in place before IP was implemented broadly, or at all. Additionally, many of these existing devices, such as sensors, are very small. IP-enabling these small devices—adding the IP stack, security and other technologies—can be impossible or prohibitively expensive.

Unfortunately, many of the things that are easy to interconnect with IP have already been connected. In general, the easy interconnections include anything to which a cellular connection or Wi-Fi radio can be attached. Connecting things that can’t support these interfaces—which includes a long list of building automation devices—is much harder.

For instance:

The goal must be to find ways to interconnect the millions or billions of devices that don’t fall into the ‘easy’ category.

CatNet SystemsSinclairFor those interested in jumping on the IIoT bandwagon, where should they start, and what should they keep in mind?

ModiIt‘s important to keep in mind that the structural changes represented by the IIoT are on a par with the industrial revolution. What’s happening is nothing less than the creation of entirely new ecosystems, based on networks being established peer-to-peer among industrial and commercial devices; between humans and industrial devices; and with the Internet. On a technical level, what allows these networks to coalesce is IP.

But as I mentioned earlier, it’s not enough to stick Wi-Fi and cellular radios onto various devices, collect data and call it an IIoT solution.

It’s premature to lay out step-by-step instructions for turning building automation solutions into IIoT solutions, but here are some things to consider.

Following the model of previous convergence examples, the IIoT convergence building blocks are expected to be:

When evaluating potential IIoT solutions, parameters to consider include:

Commercial building automation is already providing a solid glimpse of the IIoT future. Spurring greater convergence of existing and new building automation systems is a crucial step toward realizing the full potential of the IIoT.


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