Babel Buster Network Gateways: Big Features. Small Price.
J. Rand Arnold, P.E.
The reality is the convergence of facilities management and Information Technology (IT) is well underway.
Chances are good that most AutomatedBuildings.com readers recognize this numeric string as an Internet Protocol (IP) address. If you are in the environmental automation business and you or someone on your team isn't familiar with IP, you won't be in business long. Is this a bold prediction about the fate of the non-technical building automation professional? Not really. The reality is the convergence of facilities management and Information Technology (IT) is well underway. It is a convergence that heralds the inevitable move of environmental monitoring and control onto the buildings information infrastructure. Though it is often the technological issues that are stressed, it is a convergence of both technology and working relationships.
In the past, control integrators were happy running their own wire. It was safer and easier to stay within the boundaries of the proprietary networks provided by the system supplier. There was no need to truly understand the network or protocols involved, as long the manufacturer's guidelines were followed. Pulling redundant wire was preferred to dealing with other groups within a company and unfamiliar networking methodologies. Automation engineers typically voiced concerns over network traffic and how it would affect the BAS performance. Individuals who had no idea what they were referring to often recanted issues of 'message priority' and 'network trouble' response.
At the same time, IT managers happily avoided the proprietary automation networks. They discouraged the incorporation of the automation system into 'their' information infrastructure. The IT manager shunned discussion of the automation systems because the proprietary networks had little in common with the IT infrastructure. IT managers concerned themselves with the network traffic, security, and performance of the information highway. The advent of automation systems built to communicate via Ethernet forced the IT manager to dole out IP addresses to the automation professional, but it was far from a level playing field. The relationships continued to be so thin, the intersection of automation and IT systems usually took place at a single PC. The divide in the knowledge and interest that rested between automation and IT continued to make it easier to pull wire on a project than design a solution using the information infrastructure.
Today, the automation industry is coming to the reluctant conclusion that it must embrace open systems and support communication over the common information infrastructures. Similarly, those in information technology have finally realized the value of the information and control provided by the automation systems and their 'real world' devices. Old habits and a lack of knowledge once drove many implementation decisions. The reasons for concern have faded, however, with advances in tools and technology. Success for the automation professional during this period of convergence lies in understanding the fundamentals of networking and developing relationships with their IT colleagues.
Colleagues indeed. Once the divide between the building automation integrator and the IT professional was wide and deep. The integrator tended to be characterized as part of 'facilities', well down the hall from 'technopolis'. The move toward open systems, however, has narrowed the knowledge gap. To properly implement open, extensible systems requires a real understanding of networks and protocols. These topics are, in fact, quickly becoming a core competency of automation integrators. Building automation programmers are being recruited from Computer Science and Electrical Engineering disciplines where they are grounded in Information Technology standards. This 'leveling' of the playing field benefits the automation integrator and allows him to offer a variety of ideas and services to the end user.
This has become most evident as the requirement for automation information moves beyond the physical walls of the building. 'Internet enabled' is now a requirement for virtually every job. As building automation technology begins to offer the convenience of Web accessibility and open systems, the integrator can offer additional services and gain credibility with the IT forces. Take for instance the situation where the facilities engineer is responsible for HVAC requirements of a typical data center or computer room. Delivering cooling and maintaining space temperature is no longer adequate. The end user is the IT manager. He demands real time knowledge of the temperatures inside computer cabinets, knowledge of who is accessing the cabinet, and access to every aspect of the operating conditions from any browser, anywhere in the world. After all, he can do this with any of his computer systems.
Delivering on these demands is easy given a working knowledge of IP networks. There are a number of ways for this to be accomplished, but the one that epitomizes the convergence of building automation and information technology is the WallBotz. The WallBotz monitors the conditions of a mechanical room, server room, or computer closet, and independently reports alarm associated with temperature, humidity, airflow, and security. Visual space status is available through an integrated camera, which can be triggered by a contact switch. Provide a 120V outlet and configure the standard Ethernet connection and the WallBotz completes the convergence between environment and IT with a micro web server that enables environmental monitoring through any web browser.
The WallBotz product makes it clear that the convergence of environmental control and IT is happening now. Advances in open systems and building automation technologies force building automation professionals to broaden their training horizons to become network savvy. This is for the best as their learning spurs use of new products, and more learning, in a cycle. The acquired knowledge impresses their IT counterparts, who become more willing to involve them in the information infrastructure. Through this natural process Building Automation Professionals are learning to deal with IT!
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