March 2015

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EMAIL INTERVIEWJohn Rinaldi and Ken Sinclair

John RinaldiJohn Rinaldi and his team at Real Time Automation provide building automation professionals and IT people with information and products for building data management. John founded Real Time Automation Inc. in 1988 to deliver products that simplify the integration of automation systems and communications networks. John gained experience in industrial automation working for companies such as Kimberly Clark, Procter and Gamble and Rockwell Automation.

John has an Electrical Engineering degree from Marquette University and a Masters degree in Computer Science from the University of Connecticut, but is most proud of his Advanced Open Water Scuba Diving certification. John has authored a couple of books including The Industrial Ethernet Book (2nd Edition) Published by the International Society of Automation, and an introductory book on OPC UA called OPC UA: The Basics: An OPC UA Overview For Those Who May Not Have a Degree in Embedded Programming.

Realizing smart, intelligent, and efficient buildings

Client devices like HMIs, Loggers, Databases and other devices will be able to interrogate automation devices, discover their capabilities, subscribe to the information.

We asked John Rinaldi, founder and CEO of Real Time Automation (RTA), about the challenges and opportunities interconnecting building controls, building automation, utility, business computing, and other systems to achieve the vision and goals of smart, intelligent, and efficient buildings.

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SinclairWhat do you see that’s exciting for you in controls, systems, or building automation?

Rinaldi:  I’m really excited about OPC UA, that’s the newest enhancement to the OPC interoperability standard that we’ve been using for the last fifteen or twenty years. UA is going to provide the universal plumbing that really will allow us to connect anything in a building to anything else. There’s lots and lots of ways to move data from automation devices in a building to the cloud, to a database, to an application, but UA is going to become the standard for all that, really simplifying integration.

For the first time, client devices like HMIs, Loggers, Databases and other devices will be able to interrogate automation devices, discover their capabilities, subscribe to the information they need and get what data they need at the rate that they need it. And all this will happen while that device is under the control of a traditional building controller.

I’ve been studying this technology for quite a while now; blogging about it, making videos about it and even writing an Introduction to OPC UA book for people not familiar with the technology. It’s exciting to finally see it coming to fruition.

SinclairWhat are some of the challenges that the industry is facing in 2015 and beyond?

Rinaldi:  Security. I thank God every day I’m not running a water treatment plant, an electrical generating facility of some nature or any other critical infrastructure. There are nation-states out there with armies of cybersoldiers probing these facilities for vulnerabilities and cataloging them for future needs. It’s very worrisome to me. It was a lot easier to assess our vulnerabilities when we could count ships, planes and soldiers and plan to meet those obvious threats. The threats are a lot less obvious today.

Another challenge that I just wrote about in the RTA Automation Newsletter is the growing complexity, unnecessary complexity, of systems that we’re building. There’s a tendency to think that software is free, more features are always better, and that engineers can build user interfaces. That attitude has created too many products that are too complex, too difficult to integrate and configure, and too difficult to maintain.

Software engineers love code, want to code, think about code and find it extremely difficult to create user interfaces that operate simply and intuitively for the average user. Every day I see devices where the user interface is built to match how the code is architected and not how the user wants to work.

Sinclair How does any of that relate to your company, Real Time Automation?

Rinaldi:  I am very passionate about that last point. We build network gateways that move data from one network to another. We can move data between Modbus, Lon, BACnet and many building and industrial automation networks.

In our shop, I prohibit our software developers from touching the user interface. They implement it, but they have to implement what our user expert (a non-technical person) dictates and understands. Since he doesn’t code or know anything about the structure of the code, the user interface gets implemented in a way that reflects how the user wants to work. It’s been a major change to the way we work and our culture.

I’m passionate about simplicity. We want to provide the smallest number of features that get the job done for most of our customers. Not all. That’s where most companies make their mistake. They’re building product to satisfy every possible user, every possible application and every possible implementation. Those kinds of devices and systems work badly for everybody. We try really hard to avoid that, but it’s a battle we have to fight every day.

SinclairWhat makes your company unique and special?

Rinaldi:  Fun and passion. We are really passionate about our customers. Extremely passionate. And we never take ourselves too seriously to forget to add a bit of fun to everything we do. Every product we ship has a toy in it, like cereal boxes. When a customer collects the entire series of toys, they get a remote control helicopter. Every product has a software Easter egg for our integrators to find. We also send out some wild gifts, crazy postcards and decorate the shipping boxes with unique gateway-inspired art. We do this to remind our customers we are here and hopefully make them smile.

We also have an odd newsletter with articles about all sorts of important but non-automation things like being healthy, scuba diving and what I learned from my father. I’m known as the newsletter guy among a lot of automation people.

All that crazy stuff plus simple and reliable products that meet a real need have generated a lot of passion for us among our customer base. Recently we had an installer that walked into a building, saw a competitive product to ours and said, “I can’t work with that.” He ripped it off the wall and replace it with an RTA Gateway at his own expense. That’s pretty unique and special in my book. I want every customer to experience that kind of value using our products.

SinclairAt AHR2015, you introduced some new products. What are they?

Rinaldi:  We’ve really rounded out our BACnet Gateway line in 2014. We redid all our BACnet products and added support for BACnet MS/TP Master and BACnet IP Client. We can now move data between Industrial systems and Building Automation systems. For example, your BACnet MS/TP Slave (or BACnet IP Server) devices can look like EtherNet/IP Adapters or ProfiNet IO Slaves. Or your automation devices on Modbus, Modbus TCP, EtherNet/IP can look like BACnet MS/TP Slaves or BACnet IP Servers. It’s a much easier way to connect traditional industrial and building automation devices.

We’re also selling a royalty free BACnet source code development kit. Royalty free is really important to device manufacturers. And will be bringing out a really simple to use Modbus Router. That user interface makes me very proud. Our interface architect did a great job on that.

And at the show we announced an agreement with the S4 Group. Our first joint effort will be to market and sell their N2 Routers. Really, just a lot of development and lots of new things in 2015. It’s really exciting.


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