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February 2020
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“OPEN” Means Different Things to Different People

The word’s meaning is defined by the audience and its interests.
Zach Netsov
Zach Netsov
Product Specialist,
Contemporary Controls

Contributing Editor

"OPEN"  

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The word “OPEN” is used with slightly different meanings in the tech industry, which may cause some confusion. The term is certainly relevant to all who use technology, in all its forms. This includes the building automation space, where we use software and hardware technologies in the foundations of automation devices, DDCs, communication protocols, control frameworks, etc. People often ask me what we really mean when we say “OPEN”. Do we mean “open source”, “open communication”, “open programming”, or “open for business”? Is there a difference? Does it matter? “OPEN” certainly means different things to different people and the word’s meaning is defined by the audience and its interests.

Here are some practical examples

To everyday PC end users, “OPEN” means that they can take their files from their Manufacturer A PC hard drive, copy them over to their Manufacturer B PC at home, or Manufacturer C PC at the office, and use them on either PC without even having to think about it. In this case this really seems like common sense. You would never buy a PC or laptop if it were not compatible with your existing files from your old one, even though it may have completely different branding, hardware and operating system.

To mobile device users, “OPEN” means that Android phone users with devices made by Manufacturer A or Manufacturer B and users of iPhone mobile devices with completely different branding, hardware and operating system can look at their social media feeds, send text messages to each other, share cat and baby Yoda memes, or send emojis to their girlfriends who have a completely different mobile device without having to worry about communication interoperability. All they want is to communicate freely. You would never buy an Android phone which cannot send a text message to an iPhone.

To hardware engineers “OPEN” means that the engineer can understand the bus signals and microcontroller I/O pins provided by various manufacturers and there isn’t a restrictive approach to hardware components which makes them inaccessible or impossible to use in their schematics and designs.

To software engineers, in most cases “OPEN” means that there is a well-documented API, application plugin capability, or SDK that can be used to interact with that piece of software. It could also mean “open source” – meaning that engineers are free to download the source code and freely modify it to fit their needs.

To IT administrators, “OPEN” means that any connected device on their network, whether it is made by Manufacturer A or Manufacturer B or Manufacturer C, can be seen in their SNMP network monitoring software and it can be managed and accounted for.

To home automation users “OPEN” means that their thermostat, voice command pod, smart vacuum, and smart lights can interoperate. We all know that home automation devices such as Google’s Nest, Amazon’s Alexa, and Apple Home Kit devices do not interoperate at this time (early 2020) because their creators thought that they will compete for IoT market dominance by excluding each other’s devices from a home automation ecosystem. However, if you follow tech news, you would know that these tech giants have now realized how silly their shortsighted decision was, and they are going back and developing an open IP protocol, allowing all of their home automation devices to interact and interoperate.

To system integrators in building automation, “OPEN” may mean that they could use some standard protocols for communication between devices, learn a couple of common DDC control frameworks and use them across the board on different programmable DDCs. Even if there was some variation in the approach between different manufacturers, similarity in DDC control framework approach across the board would make a huge difference. “OPEN” could also mean that their programming tool can program different controllers, perhaps they shouldn’t even have to have a programming tool. DDCs could serve an embedded web-based programming tool directly to the standard web browser on the programmer’s laptop.

To a building owner “OPEN” may mean that a Manufacturer A controller/thermostat/automation device can communicate and exchange data with a Manufacturer B controller/thermostat/automation device without issues and they can all communicate to any supervisory or analytics device such as one by Manufacturer C, so that the building owner doesn’t need to rip out thousands of dollars’ worth of good DDCs only because one of them failed and there is no directly compatible replacement on the market any more – so all of them would need to be replaced, even though most of them are still good. Building owners don’t care if you have an open protocol, an API, or a plug in, they just want the devices to work together so they don’t have to spend a ton of money on complete system replacements in order to save 20% on energy cost in their building.

Regarding business models, “OPEN” may mean that you do not have to pay fees before you can buy a certain brand controller, automation or supervisory device. In a free market, you should be able to buy directly from a manufacturer or a distributor without having to pay thousands in partner, training, and licensing fees first. The ability to mix and match control devices as you please based on the features, benefits, quality, or price point allows for the most functionality, savings, and convenience to your customers. The whole point of automation is to introduce savings and convenience.

Proprietary

“PROPRIETARY” should simply be an enhancement in functionality and security as a layer on top of the “OPEN” interoperability layer

Reliable Controls Open system architectures do matter. To someone like me, who is looking at this picture, “OPEN” really means “NO RESTRICTIONS” and “INTEROPERABILITY”, which is beneficial for both integrators and end users. Interoperability has the power to revolutionize any industry using technology. Not everything in tech needs to be entirely open or open source. It is a bit more complicated than that. There certainly are benefits of proprietary technologies such as enhanced security and value added by enhanced functionality and features. However, most people do not understand that “PROPRIETARY” should really be an enhancement in functionality and security as a layer on top of the “OPEN” interoperability layer. Interoperability should be maintained while at the same time manufacturers are providing the benefits of proprietary tech added on top for us all to choose from and enjoy. “PROPRIETARY” is where Manufacturer A can shine over Manufacturer B, in customization, functionality enhancements, unique features, security, price point, quality, etc. – this is the spirit of a true competitive market which drives innovation and benefits users. There is no technical reason why two devices cannot communicate with each other. We have all the technology necessary to accomplish that.

It is actually very simple. Interoperability is something that users must demand. Nothing will change until end users such as building owners, specifying engineers, or systems integrators demand interoperability. They need to know what “OPEN” means and vote for that with their dollar. After all, our buying power is the most powerful voting power that we possess. We vote with our dollar for all kinds of things every day. In another scenario where full interoperability makes its way into the BAS industry is a massive disruption. A massive disruption to the industry would be if a manufacturer offers truly “OPEN” automation solutions, all other companies would have to follow or perish.

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