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Web Centric Building Management

The rapid development of cloud-based applications and the evolution of networking technologies have set the stage for a radical change in how building services will be delivered and managed going forward.

“Open” Wins the Race to Big Data

There has been a dramatic shift in building management systems over the past 10 years. The rapid development of cloud-based applications and the evolution of networking technologies have set the stage for a radical change in how building services will be delivered and managed going forward. Building control and metering capabilities that were once only achievable through large scale investments in singular, proprietary systems are now accessible to all building owners using emerging, open technologies that take full advantage of these evolving network capabilities.

ASHRAE, Project Haystack, and the Brick initiative have just unveiled an alliance to create an industry standard (ASHRAE Standard 223P) that sets the stage for unlocking the power of a web-centric management model for building owners and property managers — and signals the next phase in a 40 year path from expensive, closed building systems to open, accessible building information networks. By integrating Haystack tagging and Brick data modelling concepts, the new standard will provide a dictionary of semantic tags for the labelling of building data, enabling interoperability on semantic information across the building industry, particularly in building automation and control.

Locked and Bloated

A short while ago the only path for achieving comprehensive building management was to buy into a proprietary building automation system from one vendor. This type of system is comprised of simple actuators and sensors at the lowest layer (often called instrumentation) for measurement purposes, a middle tier of Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) and collectors to gather the data, and the “head end” (Building Management Application/server) as a central (mostly closed) data repository.

Typical Building Automation system — with closed, on-premise access

Access to these system has been to date mostly on premise and local — with limited communication capabilities between the “head end” and the plethora of powerful, cloud-based energy management and building control applications that are starting to emerge. A growing pressure to get access to and share building management information has resulted in some rudimentary cloud-based integration for these systems, but even so information access is often slow, limited in scope, and confined to proprietary formats and schemas.

Born Free

This decade has heralded a new approach. The emergence of the BACnet communication protocol has provided a standardized object model for building automation components — normalizing vendor products to an equipment type (i.e. thermostat versus “Philips” thermostat) with generic attributes, parameters, and arguments. In this model BACnet compliant controllers talk to all instrumentation in a building using the same control language, and it’s the responsibility of the instrument to understand and respond.

As the power and capabilities of micro-electronics increase (and costs plummet) the instrumentation layer is becoming more and more powerful — removing the need to lock-in to any particular building automation vendor and freeing property managers and building owners to buy the best equipment for the job. As a result, the BACnet standard
is becoming widely adopted.

At the same time a corresponding reduction in cost and increase in performance in communications technologies has enabled higher bandwidth communications right to the instrumentation layer — resulting in a “flatter” network. This type of network has smarter and more powerful end-points with less reliance on intermediate grooming — opening the door for cloud-based applications rather than on-premise server models.

‍Seen That Movie Too

If all of this increased performance and communications standardization sounds familiar, it’s because it is echoing the evolution of the desktop computing model. In the 1980’s and 90’s organizations were run by client/server computing over proprietary LAN architectures. Companies like Banyan, Novell, Microsoft, Xerox and IBM oversaw very complicated middleware architectures that managed connectivity from desktop to server.

For a long time this structure blocked multi-vendor solutions and dictated the equipment and applications deployed throughout a business or enterprise. Since the mid-nineties, however, onsite server-based applications and the client/server model have gradually given way to the cloud/server model — led by powerful companies such as Google, Amazon, and Cisco. Even Microsoft, the client server champion, is now positioning itself as a cloud company. 

In this new paradigm middleware architecture is standardized (using TCP/IP Protocols) and flattened — essentially becoming an extension of the Internet itself. Client devices are intelligent but low cost, emphasizing the ability to communicate with cloud applications. Building information architecture is set to follow the same path.

The Internet of Things and the Promise of Big Data

Today local devices (desktop computers, mobile phones, home appliances, security systems, you name it) have become information and data grooming instruments connected to a constellation of ready-to-consume applications via a ubiquitous, standardized, and intentionally “transparent” network. Through web services interoperability, this Internet of Things (IoT) can now share information to form greater functionality — superseding the old locked-in single vendor models with greater capability and better visibility of data for all stakeholders. This is the promise of Big Data, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The benefits for building management networks to follow this same multi-vendor path are clear — more energy management and building control functionality that is easier and cheaper to deploy. Ultimately more information gets to the right people and leads to better decision making.

But while IP attached building sensors and actuators communicating directly to web-based applications via a transparent IP fabric would seem to be the next evolution for building automation — this vision is only viable for simplistic buildings such as single-family dwellings. Larger buildings need to manage multiple and sometimes competing entities.

Critical building systems, tenant systems, security concerns, multiple stakeholders, and the sheer volume of instrumentation necessitates some form of building systems access, edge computing, and usage control.  

The Building Internet of Things

Coined by Realcomm in 2014, the term Building Internet of Things (BIoT)[1] focuses on the components of a building (heating, HVAC, security, communications, etc.) that can be connected to the Internet to create operational efficiencies, achieve energy management goals, improve building security, and much more.

BIoT system, where information flows freely from the instrumentation layer to the application layer and beyond — open for consumption by service agents in the cloud.

The difference between the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Building Internet of Things (BIoT) is that BIoT requires an aggregation and computing component that can groom information from building instrumentation into data-base level repositories. BIoT systems also require a level of edge computing to handle low latency policy/control decisions and fail-safe operations of complex building systems. Additionally, middle-tier or gateway is needed that can enforce rules and uphold system integrity and security at the building level — all while enabling the functional and efficiency benefits of IoT (open systems and cloud-based applications).

Combining Building Information Model (BIM) style abstractions (data semantics and tagging) with system and instrument permission controls creates a control point where any stakeholder and any cloud-based system can be given access to building system data sets. These data sets can then be accessed from cloud applications over rich web-services API’s (e.g. a JSON RESTful API with a Project Haystack tag model) or any other building semantic/communication model.

Using these standards models, information can flow freely from the instrumentation layer to the application layer and beyond for Big Data correlation — open for consumption by service agents in the cloud. This approach delivers all the benefits of cloud computing, but allows for adherence to the rules for interaction required by complex buildings. 

Benefits All Round

The benefits to property managers and building owners of delivering the IoT model via a standards-based BIoT gateway are huge, including; making the right information available to the right people, at the right time; gaining unobstructed access to new and emerging energy management and building control applications (commensurate with the Big Data promise); vendor independence and consumer choice (no lock-in); plug and play replacement of components at any level; and future proof durable systems with software that can be remotely upgraded.

What’s Next?

A new class of BIoT systems that work within the complex framework of open systems, open protocols, multiple applications, and building instrumentation is emerging. These are devices that understand the language of the internet, have local data repositories for aggregation which are self-describing, include a level of edge computing, adhere to open semantic models, and can communicate securely via WAN or LAN or Building Automation network. 

Such BIoT devices will act as service delivery platforms with multiple levels of permission and authentication. They will be able to run applications, such as gateway software, and may even perform functions like building services metering or monitoring. They will be able to integrate with other devices, or, alternatively, stand alone with instrumentation directly or wirelessly tethered. They will be able to communicate with legacy management platforms (even local Building Management Systems) but they will be designed to be fully accredited citizens of the cloud-centric Big Data world, because that’s where the future is.

Relevant Links

"ASHRAE Standard 223P to Integrate Haystack tagging and Brick data modelling",

"BAS Industry Collaborates On Semantics", Theresa Sullivan, A New Deal for Buildings

[1] Young, Jim. “BIoT – BUILDING Internet of Things.”, Realcomm, 23 Jan. 2014,

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