April 2022
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What is an Independent Data Layer?

How does it work? And why the heck should you care?
Andy Frank

Andy Frank

Founder & Principal
Novant


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Maybe you've heard of this new thing: the “independent data layer.” But what is it? How does it work? And why the heck should you care?

Think of all the things you do today in buildings. Or maybe all the stuff you wish you could do. What is the first requirement in almost every case?

Data.

We increasingly depend on data to make our buildings better, safer, and smarter. It's the foundation for much of the technological advancement in our spaces.

Now think about how data is acquired and maintained in your buildings today. Where is it stored? How would you access it? Can you get a live feed from your sensors? What about trend logs to see those values over time? Can you write back into your controls? Any kind of semantic tagging to identify points?

If that seems like an awful lot of questions for such an essential layer in our buildings, you're not alone.

We've generally been left to cobble together data solutions on our own. And those solutions run the gamut from repurposing expensive enterprise software down to hacking together data loggers from Raspberry Pis.

Enter the IDL

This is where the Independent Data Layer (IDL) comes in.

The IDL has emerged to solve these exact challenges. Purpose-built to provide a reliable and straightforward solution for not just extracting data from buildings systems. But also for managing storage and access.

This is a bit of a new concept for this space. The IDL is infrastructure. It does not provide end-user value on its own. Instead, it enables value. If a building invests in a proper IDL, it can reap substantial benefits for every new application added. Not to mention significantly improving how it maintains the systems it already has.

Consider an existing building with controls but no FDD. The owner wishes to add analytics via an outside consultant. What would this process look like if there is no IDL in place?

First, they would work with the controls contractor to (hopefully) get some level of access to the existing BMS. Then, not knowing much about the building, they pour over all the point data to decipher what is what. Then they discover trending was never set up, so there is no history. In the best cases, weeks have passed. More typically, months.

Notice what hasn't happened? Any analytics. No value has been created — just busywork. Now imagine the owner wants to add another application. The whole process repeats. Again.

Contrast this with a building that has an IDL. The owner logs into his web browser and grants a new unique API key for the FDD consultant. In this case, it's a read-only key and restricted to just the HVAC system.

The consultant starts pulling and exploring data over the API using a well-known format such as JSON. Or even better, they have IDL support already built-in to their tool of choice.

Now they are generating actionable data on day one.

This is the power of an Independent Data Layer. It substantially reduces the cost of integrating new technology into buildings.

It's also the first step in knocking down silos in buildings. Freeing the data allows us to create a single storage layer for all applications to build from.

So what else can an IDL provide?

Protocol Normalization

Most IDLs will present data using a normalized format — typically JSON. There is no need to worry about the underlying protocol, such as Bacnet or Modbus. Even when multiple protocols are used in a building, from an IDL user's standpoint, it doesn't matter. All points are accessed the same way. This normalization alone can significantly simplify how anyone integrates into their building systems.

Protocol integration becomes the IDL vendor's problem to solve. And as time goes on, they will continue to broaden what kinds of devices they can communicate with.

Managed Storage

Another benefit of IDLs is managed storage. If you've ever grappled with trying to store gigabytes of historical trend data, you'll appreciate this. Think DropBox for building data. An infinitely scalable storage space that is highly available and automatically backed up.

While some applications may still require importing this data into their system, you can expect a transition to requesting data on-demand directly from the IDL over time. This reduction in storage requirements further simplifies the responsibilities of downstream value-added tools.

Semantic Modeling

The IDL provides a logical place for standardizing semantic meta-data, such as Haystack or Brick. Once we have a single place to store all our data, it only makes sense we model it in one place too.

How much modeling an IDL supports will range across vendors based on how much information they have access to. Basic systems may only model individual points. But if structural or spatial data is present, relationships and full digital twins are possible.

By making these models readable by their API, downstream apps can pull in ready-to-use designs for their building. Imagine if firing up your FDD software was as simple as opening an Excel document.

Extend the Life of Existing Systems

An interesting thing happens when you expose the functionality of a building system to the cloud from your IDL API. You gain the ability to program things externally. More sophtiscited analytics and optimization. More predictive control. AI/ML intelligence. These services can run anywhere, and only the results need to be written back to the system.

By leveraging cloud services to improve our buildings, we are less dependent on updates to the on-premise systems, which can be expensive and time-consuming to upgrade.

Maybe you don't need to upgrade that BMS? What solutions can we provide to complement existing systems and extend their lives well into the future?

Future Proof your Buildings

The flip side of extending legacy systems is we also future-proof anything installed today. Remove the indecision of picking the right technology or trying to anticipate where the advancements will be.

The IDL abstraction layer protects your building from future choices. Anything is possible once you have data, history, and two-way communication.

Rest easy that you'll be ready for what's next.

The benefits to an IDL continue, but hopefully, this article has shed some light on the core value it can bring to your buildings.

Learn more at novant.io and see how Novant can help future-proof your buildings for what comes next.


















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