February 2016
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"Phil on IoT"

The Chaos that is IoT



Phil ZitoPhil Zito,
Senior Technology Program Manager, Johnson Controls


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I got a crazy idea the other night. For some crazy reason I decided to build a web application that would, at least in my mind, consume data from any Smart Device out in the marketplace. And that is where I ran into my first problem.

First, I ran a search for Smart Devices. The search returned the names of devices like Ecobee, Nest, SmartThings, Echo, and Insteon. Those were only a few offerings that popped up when I did my Google search. No Smart Building devices popped up in my first search, but you know what’s worse? When I Googled Smart Building Products, I got wonderful responses like “IBM Smarter Buildings” or “Smart Buildings with Internet of Things by Intel”. Look, I know these are smart companies but if I, a person who deals with this every day, can’t tell what you do with a simple Google search how in the world are customers going to figure out what to use in their buildings?

So I decided to start writing about IoT. This article is part cry for help and part pleading to the marketers in these companies, you’ve got to make this stuff simple. Look, if I type in smart home into Google the first page has results like Smart lights, smart stats, even smart coffee machines…. These descriptions tell me in a few short words, what the product is, what it does, and why I need it.

Too often we think of the commercial building space as a higher level of automation, but in reality the folks making the procurement decisions are no different than the average home buyer. They have better things to do than try to figure out if system A will work with system B. To date there has not been a reliable source on what systems exist in the commercial building space, and to anyone who argues that there is I say - show me!

Ok, so I’ve been wailing, citing issues most of us know exist. What can we do? I’ve laid out a challenge for five groups of folks here, after all, why go for the traditional three when you can go for five.

Marketers

First off Marketers, you need to make this stuff stupid simple. I mean, if your customers have to watch some fancy video of a hand drawing a picture while a guy with a deep baritone voice talks to figure out what you do, well maybe you might want to rethink that strategy a bit? I can’t count the amount of websites I go to doing research on potential technology partners and/or technology offerings where I watch a video on the offering only to be followed by another video that contradicts the offering I just watched. For example, I went to a smart lighting website, the first video is one of those glossy build videos describing the plug and play nature of the offering and how it has an open API, etc. The very next video, which is newer than the video I just watched, has the CTO talking about how he is going to be releasing the API in the next six months.  Oops, maybe he and marketing should have talked to get their messaging straight.

Techie Folks

Second, us Techo-geeks, it really doesn’t help our customers at all to tell them, "Well as long as it is compliant to IEEE standard X, or protocol Y, and we have an API that you can use to pull things together, etc, etc. We need to be thinking simple. We need things like Graphical User Interface (GUI)  driven integration. Imagine how easy integration would be if it used drag and drop blocks on a graphical user interface easily allowing the end user to link devices. I know this kind of software exists for business process integration so why doesn’t it exist in the building space? The reality is, we live in a world where I can plug in a TV and all of these applications just work. Why then can’t we develop solutions like that for the building space. The answer to that lies with our third group.

Large Companies

Third, Large Companies, look, stop trying to reinvent the wheel. Stop trying to combine technologies for the sake of growing your scope and look at what the technologies actually do. Pick a few solid technology partners and collaborate with them to grow your business together. Also, collaborate with your competitors, link up and create frameworks. I’ve been involved in multiple projects where the company who won was the company that was the most “open”. By the way it does the customer absolutely no good if your system is so ad-hoc that it doesn’t work with anyone else! You really hold the keys to the castle in this situation. The reason why we have so few integration platforms is because of the lack of standardization across the building space.

Owners

Fourth, Owners, would you buy a car without reading about it? Would you trust the salesperson when they say, "You don’t need to test drive this car, its great!" No, you’d laugh in that person's face and walk out the door. So why then will you buy products costing 10x to 100x the cost of a car and not ask to see a working pilot at your site. I mean if these offerings are so easy, and so miraculous then the company should be able to install a working pilot within a few weeks, right? The point is, this IoT stuff, despite what companies say, is as new to them as it is to their customers. That’s not a bad thing, just realize that the market hasn’t standardized yet, and that until that happens the "prove it bar" needs to be set pretty high.

Construction Tier

And finally, the construction tier, I understand you. I made my career in the plan and spec world doing quick hit building automation jobs. You are all about reducing risk, and IoT, it’s like a giant risk spider waiting to crawl out from underneath your construction documents and bite you in the hand. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be. Let’s get real for a second, there’s only so many ways you can control the temperature and lights in a building. The lights, are either on, off, or kinda on/off, I’m sure I read that last term in a CSI spec somewhere. Therefore, how do you maintain the speed of a plan and spec project and avoid the risk of new technology, while giving your customer technology that’s slightly more advanced than a pneumatic thermostat?

Well for one, you might want to look at the building automation system as different than sheet metal and drywall. I don’t mean this sarcastically, I'm being serious; on a normal project, sheet metal and drywall are no different than building automation systems. You know what though, I don’t blame you, it’s not in your best interest to be on the cutting edge. However, it might be in the customer’s best interest. This is the one area I haven’t quite got answered yet. I have some ideas: Greater Owner Collaboration, having a certification body for IoT to certify interoperability, and having IoT certified contractors.

Closing

Reliable Controls In closing, I’m not trying to be all doom and gloom here. The reality is we are standing at a time when this smart building stuff is actually coming true. I mean think about it for a second, for the past 10 years I’ve heard integration this, mobile that, smart, converged, intelligent, ect. Now things are different, we have mobile devices, RFID technology with sub-meter accuracy, and with the wide adoption of Open-Source API’s the pace at which technology is advancing is rapid. I can point to dozens of home automation sites where folks are creating amazing solutions.  By the way, don’t tell your wife before you decide to use passive infrared sensors, Arduino boards, and LED’s to create self-lighting stairs (a story for another time).

So what I want you to take away from this is.

First, for everyone, get involved, I will discuss a few initiatives in this series' next column.

For companies, collaborate with one another! Work to create frameworks and standards, who cares who gets the credit it benefits all of us at the end.

Contractors, embrace technology, I promise two things. One, it will be a learning curve. Two, your profitability and competitiveness will increase.

So what are your thoughts on the Chaos around IoT? What are you doing to change it? See you next on the next Phil on IoT.


About the Author

Phil Zito CCDA, CCNA, CISSP, TOGAF Certified

Phil has been working with technology for the past 14 years. He is the creator of Building Automation Monthly and is  currently a Senior Technology Program Manager for Johnson Controls. In this role he manages multiple products and technical programs. He also works as a liaison between marketing, sales, and engineering in order to translate sales and technical speak to meet customer needs.

Phil is known for his variety of knowledge. He is fluent in several programming languages, has designed the IT Infrastructure for several of Johnson Controls customers, and has worked on and integrated almost every Building Controls Product in existence.

Phil runs the popular blog Building Automation Monthly at http://blog.buildingautomationmonthly.com and has written for the ASHRAE Journal as well as other trade magazines and has spoken at IBCon. In his off time he likes to program, write, and spend time with his wife and three young children.

______________

As always, the views expressed in this column are mine and do not necessarily represent Johnson Controls Inc. or any other organization.  If you want to send comments to me directly, feel free to email me at Phil@philzito.com


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