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Recently I was approached by Ken Sinclair of AutomatedBuildings.com to write a short article about the experiences of being a “multi-vendor integrator”. Of course, as I am often prone to do, I jumped at the opportunity before actually giving a lot of thought about what I was getting myself into. However, being game, and also wanting to genuinely share experiences that might be helpful to others in this field; the subject is certainly worth exploring. Even the way the wording of “multi-vendor integrator” seems to me a little imposing at first. So, maybe it might be best to lay a few ground rules for how we are going to approach this subject. The purpose of this article then, is to define just exactly what being a multi-vendor integrator means; what are some of the ways we, as automation contractors, might find ourselves in this situation, and what sort of advantages or disadvantages might come a long with the territory. So, let’s take a look at what being a multi-vendor integrator really is.
What is a Multi-Vendor Integrator?
OK, so just what exactly does it mean to be a multi-vendor integrator? Hmmm…… My company, Control Network Services (CNS), advertises itself as such, but that doesn’t mean I go running around with a ready explanation available. I think we meet the description at first glance; CNS distributes Reliable Controls, Richards-Zeta, and we do a substantial amount of work with Automated Logic (ALC) products. CNS also has demonstrable examples of projects using various combinations of the above products in order to best meet the customer’s business requirements. That by itself though really doesn’t help explain what criteria we will use to measure ourselves by. First it might be helpful to arrive at some type of definition.
Beyond perhaps just selling different brands of controls, I think that a crucial aspect of being a multi-vendor integrator is actually doing the deed; that is actually integrating with products from multiple vendors. Let’s come up with a good working example. Many of us have integrated with a third party device such as a variable frequency drive (VFD) or some type packaged process unit. That is nothing new, and is perhaps more of a standard now that I think most of us should strive for, in that a data stream will always provide more features and benefits than just plain input/out (I/O) points.
However, how many of us, as automation contractors, will dare to venture out and integrate, say, one brand of zone level controls with another brand of system level controls into yet a different brand of operator workstation software, whether it is a thick client or web-based application. Whew, not only is that a mouthful, but the implementation can also be pretty daunting to roll out and maintain too. That being said though, I think that this is a good place to start with for exploring what it means to be a multi-vendor integrator.
CNS has certainly not backed away from any of these challenges. Rather we have embraced them as a chance to create new business opportunities. Mostly this has been in the form of where we have introduced a new brand of zone or system level controllers into an existing system where obtaining legacy parts were no longer an option. There have also been occasions where CNS was specifically contracted in order to help stitch together other vendor’s control system as part of a joint or cooperative project/team effort.
A good example of this is a 2005 project done for the Denver Public School system where we joined an existing Johnson Controls (JCI) N1 building automation system with an ALC WebCTRL front-end to create a truly integrated building automation system (IBAS). The glue that held everything together was a Richards-Zeta (RZ) Mediator, converting the N1 bus to BACNet objects, which could then be utilized by function blocks stored in a series of ALC LGR1000’s. The other team members were the local JCI branch and the local ALC distributor. So, it was truly a team effort on the part of multiple automation contractors. The experiences and lessons learned from the project could perhaps be the subject of a complete article in of itself.
A last type of multi-vendor integration project that CNS has encountered is taking disparate legacy systems and creating a wrapper of new technology around them in order to elevate the system to incorporate new technologies that were never intended for the original system. That is also another concept that is a mouthful, and one that can prove to be a tremendous challenge during the implementation stage. So, after a little examination of a definition of the multi-vendor integrator, the above examples of actually doing the “deed”, so to speak, mostly will fall into two categories; either blending multiple vendor’s parts together or creating some type of bridge between them.
Who am I and How Did I Get Here?
OK, so now we know what it means to be a multi-vendor integrator, how many of us are there really out there, and how did we get into the position we find ourselves in? I don’t have a ready answer for the first question that I proposed, though I suspect our numbers are growing. As anecdotal evidence I will take a look at how many of the Reliable Controls dealers in Colorado work with multiple brands of controls. If you take a look at the Reliable Controls website, you will find four dealers registered for Colorado; CNS, AMS, E-Logic, and Facility Healthcare Services (FHS). I know that at three out of the four dealers work with multiple brands of temperature control products. That doesn’t prove anything as far as the point I was trying to make about how many multi-vendor integrators there really are, but it does demonstrate very well that the potential, at least in numbers, exists. This also helps me build upon my second point; how do we find ourselves in the position of being a multi-vendor integrator?
Well, there would be two ways then; on-purpose and accidental like. The first one is kind of self explanatory and therefore not much fun for us to explore. How about the second or accidental way of becoming a multi-vendor integrator? That certainly is the way that CNS came about being who we are. Rather, we had to become a multi-vendor integrator because of the business conditions we encountered, and not so much that we made a conscious choice. In other words, we could no longer obtain a reliable supply of one brand and had an existing customer base that still needed service and maintenance. This is a situation that I suspect that many automation contractors will find themselves in over the lifespan of their business. The key concept then is that the “what” we do as an automation contractor is much more important than what brand we do it with. Relationships that exist today can change tomorrow for reasons that are much beyond our control in a local business environment. Out of the chaos of change that can result when we can no longer obtain brand “A” should arise the opportunity to create and integrate with brand “B”.
Multi-Vendor Advantages and Disadvantages
As with most things in life, there are certainly ups and downs associated with being a multi-vendor integrator. However, being an optimist, I will choose to focus on the advantages first. Having the ability to truly integrate with multiple brands of automation products sure has generated many business opportunities CNS would not have otherwise gotten. Secondly, having to work with and understand multiple vendors’ products, CNS has learned to take a very holistic, industry approach to controls rather than a brand “centric” perspective. The point is that no one manufacturer has any magic over any other, and we all have to put on our pants in the same way; one leg at a time so to speak. In other words, all controls manufacturers have to take the same approach more or less towards providing a solution. Understanding that in the big picture sense can really help when comes to designing and planning the implementation of the integrated system. Also, being able to offer multiple brands allows the integrator to mix and match their offering of products and services to best meet their client’s business requirements. Lastly, an advantage of being able to integrate with multiple brands allows the integrator to best leverage the life cycle and life span of their client’s building automation infrastructure.
OK, so much for the upside; what’s the bad? Well, the integrator is certainly exposed to more product liability risks. For example, if you are selling multiple brands of controls, it seems like your inventory of everything that is involved in the day to day operations of your business grows exponentially. There now must be multitude of widgets for connecting to plethora of thing-a-ma-jigs, spare parts purchased from more than one controls manufacturer, so on and so forth. That’s just the physical side of the business. There is also an increased burden on the mental resources available to the business. This means that additional resources will need to be devoted to absorbing the technical details necessary for providing a minimal level of customer support for multiple brands of controls. Perhaps there are more negatives, but to me, the upside very much outweighs any disadvantages.
Wow, so I think we have reached a conclusion on a pretty good discussion about being a multi-vendor integrator. Of course we could spend some more time examining and dissecting the details, and perhaps that would make the basis of where to continue with some future articles. However, for the sake of closure, I think we have covered enough ground to give someone a feel for the subject. Specifically, we examined that to be a multi-vendor integrator means to take it a little further than selling multiple brands or integrating to third party devices, but rather to create meaningful blends of zone and system level controllers of disparate manufacturers. The way an automation contractor might become a multi-vendor integrator can be either on purpose or accidental, but I think that many of us stumble into the proposition rather than purposefully setting a deliberate course. However we arrived at this point though, the situation should be viewed as an opportunity to create business rather than the integrating multiple brands being an obstacle. Furthermore, to me the advantages of being a multi-vendor integrator outweigh the downside. Though there is increased liability and exposure working with multiple brands as opposed to one, and it takes more resources; the increased opportunities from a wider product and services offering, and to being able better to leverage system life cycle and span are significant advantages. The culture of multi-vendor integration is the future. Now go forth and integrate.
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