March 2015

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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.

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The Many Faces of BAS Convergence in the Age of IIoT

The problem with fragmentation of automation technology within buildings is that it slows innovation, which has serious implications for everyone from BAS providers and specifiers to building owners and the tenants of the buildings.

One of the most prominent themes of this year’s AHR Expo in Chicago was convergence in building automation systems.

We asked Sohrab Modi, Chief Technology Officer of Echelon Corp., a leader in IIoT device connectivity, to talk about the different types of convergence that anyone involved in BAS should be aware of in this age of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

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SinclairWhat’s the significance of the IIoT part of the equation to your view of BAS convergence?

Modi:  At a high level, the Internet of Things (IoT) is about the convergence of previously disparate systems, technologies and devices. The Industrial IoT, or IIoT, applies to industrial and commercial applications that include not only building automation, but also things like industrial automation, lighting, commercial transportation, smart cards, test and measurement, and the energy grid.

The IIoT is distinct from the Consumer or Human IoT, which encompasses applications such as Nest home thermostats and FitBit personal health monitoring devices. If you want to find out more about the distinct markets for the Consumer and Industrial IoT, Moor Insights & Strategy has published some white papers on this topic.

There are a number of important distinctions between the Human IoT and the IIoT, especially as it relates to commercial BAS. In the Human IoT, human users are integral to the interaction with the Internet. But the IIoT has the added dimension of autonomous communities of devices that must be able to take action directly, without human interaction or mediation through a centralized cloud infrastructure.

As we discussed in our earlier conversation, there are also much more stringent operational demands in the IIoT for performance, availability and security. Plus, the IIoT is characterized by a billion or so existing networked devices, many of which are designed for decades of industrial-grade use. So instead of being able to approach everything fresh, as with the Consumer IoT, IIoT systems such as BAS need to take into account these legacy devices, which we refer to as operational technology (OT).

SinclairWhat are some of the kinds of convergence that will be important for BAS, given this new IIoT environment?

ModiLet me list a few of them, then we can go into more detail on them. Some important areas of convergence include:

Then, in addition to convergence, we need to look at greater coexistence or cooperation between things such as wired and wireless connectivity.

SinclairYou mentioned IP. What’s the significance of Internet Protocol to the future of BAS?

ModiThink of Internet Protocol, which arose from the world of IT, as the common ‘language’ of the IIoT. In the 1980s era, the flourishing of the Internet depended on bridging the disparate networks that connected PCs at that time. The ‘bridging’ protocol chosen was IP. For the IIoT, a similar flourishing will depend on industrial networks’ ability to intercommunicate, especially given the plethora of incompatible protocols and connectivity media that currently characterize BAS. As with the Internet, the common protocol for the IIoT is IP.

Having a common framework is vital for the overall control upon which the whole IIoT depends. Control networking is something industrial sectors such as BAS know well. In fact, some have called the IIoT ‘control networking 2.0’ because it’s really an outgrowth of what’s been going on for decades in disciplines such as building automation. But the difference now is that the control has to evolve beyond control of just one particular system, to encompass an entire ecosystem or building, top to bottom and everything in between.

SinclairSo that’s where OT/IT convergence comes in. How do you see that playing out?

ModiAgain, IP will be key to OT/IT convergence. The IT world, and the Internet itself, already uses IP as its basis. The challenge for the IIoT world, and for BAS, is to find ways to enable the existing, long-lived, pre-IP OT devices and applications to participate in the IIoT.

One way is to IP-enable each OT device. But even with fast-reducing prices for IP enablement, this device-by-device approach is not cost-effective for many of the smaller or simpler OT devices. In these cases, the approach must be to ‘translate’ the existing OT protocols, or provide an intermediary, so they can play in the IP domain.

Connectivity convergence, driven by highly optimized and less-expensive chipsets, is taking shape as numerous OT protocols (LonWorks, BACnet, DALI, KNX, etc.) converge to run over IP, enabled on the end device through targeted processing power, optimal memory and excellent battery life.

SinclairBuilding automation would seem to be the epitome of OT/IT convergence potential. What are some implications of this convergence, or its lack, for BAS?

ModiYou’re right. Building automation is a classic OT/IT mix: fragmented OT systems for HVAC, lighting, security, elevators, etc.—each with its own networks, protocols and sets of data collected—increasingly coming under IT department control.

The problem with fragmentation of automation technology within buildings is that it slows innovation, which has serious implications for everyone from BAS providers and specifiers to building owners and the tenants of the buildings.

Building owners want to leverage investments in their OT systems. But to do that, the legacy networks must be integrated with modern converged IT infrastructures, onto a common IP-based platform. Doing this requires those intermediary technologies I mentioned earlier, able to translate protocols and other technical processes between OT and IT domains.

But merging the worlds of OT and IT is not an easy proposition. The IIoT represents structural changes that have been compared to the changes wrought by the industrial revolution. Entirely new ecosystems are being created, based on networks being established peer-to-peer among industrial and commercial devices; between humans and industrial devices; and with the Internet.

At the facilities management level, convergence will mean not only less distinction between traditional building automation networks, but also a convergence of the roles of individual people and departments. Job titles and duties involving OT—such as facilities managers and manufacturing engineers—will converge with the job titles and duties of IT, such as CIO, networking and database admins, and data analysts.

People accustomed to having control over their own fiefdoms within building automation will have to get used to collaborating much more closely and directly with the IT department. Similarly, IT teams will need to become more conversant about building automation systems that previously weren’t something they had to consider too deeply.

In the IIoT world, anyone who has a role in specifying, choosing, purchasing or operating BAS equipment or applications will need to master at least some aspect of OT/IT convergence. Hanging onto a siloed mindset will be an impediment as the IIoT takes hold. Conversely, embracing convergence—at as many levels as possible—can provide a recipe for success in this exciting new world.


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