January 2012

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Cloud-Ready Buildings and Open Source
A building that can connect to a cloud with minimal start-up costs is cloud-ready.

Toby ConsidineToby Considine
TC9 Inc

The New Daedalus

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It is inevitable that the future of building systems operations is in the cloud. In the best run corporations, whose enterprise operations are in a private cloud, building system operation has already joined other enterprise operations. They have found that cloud-based building operation is the means to better cost control, improved service provision, and close ties between enterprise activities and energy costs. As distributed energy makes the links between business and building operations more critical (and rewarding), building owners without clouds will want to link their own buildings to the clouds.

Connecting to the cloud is cost prohibitive for many buildings, because of the large up-front costs. Companies that operate their buildings from their own cloud today, tend to own their own buildings. They pay more attention to commissioning standards than do other building owners. They use the clouds for dual purposes, to enable smart maintenance and to tie building operation to their primary business activities. Someone other than their occupants owns most commercial buildings. Building owners may want to connect to more than one cloud, one for maintenance, one for operations, and perhaps yet another for access control. A building that can connect to a cloud with minimal start-up costs is cloud-ready.

Cloud computing is the practice of using a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet to store, manage, and process data, rather than a local server. Could computing is distinguished from merely using a remote server in that the identity of the server is less important than the service. A cloud service may be provided by a single computer, or by many; successive uses of the cloud may or may not involve the same physical server. More generally, when a service moves into the clouds, the user of the service is concerned with the information and interface returned, rather than with the underlying software.

An ideal cloud-ready building would require no integration services. Upon request, and after authorization, a cloud-based system would connect to a building and be able to begin meaningful interactions without direct programming and integration requirements. The ideal cloud-ready building would support discovery, i.e., the cloud would be able to find its contents and make meaningful use of them. The ideal cloud-ready building would expose semantically consistent descriptions of its systems and system components, i.e., the cloud would be able to tell the difference between a temperature sensor on a re-heat coil and in a return air vent. The ideal cloud-ready building would support a framework to tie the systems and control points to the spaces in the building; a system that supports the 3rd floor could so identify itself. Clearly, today’s buildings are not cloud ready.

A consistent semantic description of building systems starts with consistent tagging standards. Building systems identify points with small strings of text or “tags”. Points include sensors where something can be measured, and control points, where something can be set or changed. Consistent tagging standards build on a taxonomy that identifies the type of system (HW for Hot Water?), the purpose (SEN for sensor?), and a purpose identifier (RTN for return) as a minimum. (Note these are not proposals, but merely examples for those few Automated Building readers who have not thought of tag standards before.) Companies that build and operate their own facilities enforce tagging standards in their construction and commissioning documents.

Cloud ready buildings would enforce consistent tagging standards across an industry or across all buildings. Building owners who desire cloud-ready buildings should state their requirements and enforce them through their commissioning agents. Commissioning software could discover all tags in a building system and highlight those that do not match the standard pattern. It is likely that future versions of “green” standards such as LEED or Green Globes will require adherence to tagging standards. If you are interested in semantic standards for building components, a good place to start is in the open source haystack semantic project, http://project-haystack.org/.

As important as is understanding the building systems is understanding the business functions and services those spaces support. People and businesses occupy building space, not building systems. Security systems grant access to space, not to actuators. In the cloud-ready building, the tagged points must be mapped to the space, i.e., to the structural model of the building. You can think of this mapping as similar to mapping a point on Google Earth; the data points and readings achieve meaning through location. An access control system needs to identify the spaces and rooms secured by means of mapping the doors. A building operations system need identify the people and processes supported through mapping systems to rooms.

contemporary A cloud-ready building must be able to share, directly or through reference, a minimal building model. Today, the formats for these models are derived from the large BIM standards, as is GBXML, or occasionally from other well-known models that may offer better computational performance. One popular format for expressing 3D spaces is Collada, used in PlayStation and supported by Google Earth. Either way, by mapping the standard tags, and the systems they describe onto the building model, a cloud-ready building can specify what system points affect what space.

An enterprise system that manages space, and the users of space, can then provide a framework for cloud behaviors. Perhaps office assignments define a security framework for access control. A building split between two tenants can outsource its operations to two different clouds, each under contract to a different tenant. The landlord may outsource access control to another cloud, its authorizations tied to assertions made in the leasing system.

As we move to smart energy, which includes distributed and intermittent energy sources, the challenges in providing reliable building-based services, become greater. As the challenges grow, so do the distinctions between the services provided by a well-managed and an adequately managed building. Eventually, the difference will be great enough to provide a significant competitive advantage to the landlord able to avail himself of cloud-based services.

As the cost of energy rises, and the reliability of centrally provided power decreases, the relative benefits of agile, purpose-driven building operations increase. We simply won’t get there until we have active, competitive markets for cloud-based services for buildings.

And for that, we will need cloud-ready buildings.


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