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Interview - June 2003
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Web of Progress

Byron K. Hill, Ph.D., Director, Marketing/Systems Technology, Johnson Controls


Building automation continues to benefit from growth in Web-based tools and advances in information technology. Here's a look at the latest directions.

Technology continues to increase the power of a building automation system (BAS), not just to drive facility performance but to deliver business results. Trends today include the convergence of building and IT network infrastructure and the development of web-based tools that enable the sharing of information between the BAS and standard business applications. Byron K. Hill, Ph.D., Director, Marketing/Systems Technology for Johnson Controls, discusses the most important trends to understand.

Note: HPB (High Performance Buildings) asks the questions.

This interview which originally appeared in the Johnson Controls-sponsored supplement to the May 2003 issue of CSE focuses on knowledge-based integration.

HPB: We are hearing a lot about Web Services in IT and computer publications. In what ways will Building Automation System owners benefit from this new technology?

Hill: They'll benefit in a number of ways. There are a number of technologies and products being developed by BAS manufacturers and other industry providers, but they represent only a small fraction of what is being developed in the IT world. We have seen influences on our industry by a number of the new IT technologies. The benefit of Web Services is that they give building owners an opportunity to share the infrastructure that IT is already providing and managing, especially when it comes to information sharing. Some of the new tools and technologies make it much easier to share information between systems. As our customer's organizations evolve and become more sophisticated, management is asking for a lot more detailed cross-functional information about things happening in their facilities. The Web Services model gives us an opportunity to easily share information between the BAS technology and the business systems.

HPB: Can you provide some examples of what information sharing could mean for people running buildings today?

Hill: In healthcare, if I run a hospital and my mission and goal is patient care, how does my facility impact that mission? It has an impact in terms of the overall environment, not just the temperature and humidity, but it involves many aspects of the patient and staff perceptions. It means things like being able to link room scheduling, so when a patient is assigned a room, you can make sure the room meets the personal and medical requirements of that patient. That might mean assuring negative pressure for infectious disease control, or proper ambient lighting levels, to providing more hotel-like amenities such as Internet access. The same can be said for an operating room, where the environment is even more critical than the patient's room. Instant access to information about all aspects of the environment allows changes to be made that keep staff and patients satisfied.

In education, it's the same thing with the learning environment. If you tie in the lighting and the air quality, then you can have a direct impact on student achievement. You can also put the department responsible for registration in charge of scheduling and they can make changes in the BAS schedule without having to know anything about it. But the result is that you turn off the lights and power in rooms that are unoccupied, and you reduce the need for heating or cooling, which will save a great deal of energy over the course of a year.

Another example is an airport facility, where you have flights coming in throughout the day and night. If the flight information system can send information about arriving flights to the BAS system, you can program it can turn on the lights in the right gate area, turns on the power, and bring the space to a comfortable temperature just in time for the flight to arrive. The energy consumption information can be sent back to the plant management system in order to bill that particular airline for the energy costs. You also have the ability to take that data and pump it back to a hotel. Now the hotel knows the flight is in, it's on time, or it's late, and what gate it's going to be at. You can provide that as a service to the hotels from the airlines.

Interaction between different systems isn't traditionally thought of when systems are being developed. Web Services provides us a standard way of integrating a lot of different systems because it's adhering to an IT standard, which is common across all organizations. A lot more of the systems are adhering to that standard, so we're taking advantage of something that's already out there.

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HPB: Is there an easy way to explain what Microsoft's .Net technology is all about?

Hill: Sure. It's an effort from Microsoft to provide the developer with tools to facilitate these integration strategies and services. What Microsoft essentially provides to the developer is a toolset to help them develop applications that have Web Services built right into them, so you don't have to understand all the details of the code. It allows someone to come up to speed fairly quickly to develop applications with Web Services built in. There's a number of other major tool set providers - IBM with Web Sphere, Sun with Java (J2EE). These tools now can be used to embed Web Services into the applications without having to physically write all the code.

HPB: We have been hearing about new languages and protocols like XML and SOAP. Do I need to understand the details concerning them or can I be confident that manufacturers are using the most appropriate technology?

Hill: You can be confident in a manufacturer if they are adhering to Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I) standards and protocols. This association is made up of a consortium of companies working to develop standards that they will use uniformly in their products and services. So you don't need to understand things like XML and SOAP - you only need to make sure that a manufacturer is adhering to those Web Services protocols.

HPB: Can you explain the difference between Web-enabled and Web-based systems?

Hill:The difference is inherently in how the system is constructed. Web-enabled means I have a system that I've basically given browser access to, so I have bolted on a Web Server to talk to my system in order to give you a view of some information in that system.

Web-based means that in its core, the way system is built, the Web is a central component of how the system works and communicates. Web access is not an add-on. It's inherent to the way system was designed.

So Web-enabled refers to something I had before, and I essentially put a browser on top of it, whereas in a Web-based system the Internet is central to the way it communicates.

There are some things you cannot do in a Web-enabled environment. When you pull up a Web page, there may be only a couple of things you can do. You're stuck with a certain framework, and you can't add or delete a lot of things; you're basically looking at an interface for viewing information, but you are not necessarily able to take action.

With a Web-based system, not only can you view that information within a browser, but you're able to take action: to respond and acknowledge alarms, to command points and to do tasks within that browser-based system.

This is a fundamental difference between systems of today and new systems we are developing. New capabilities allow you to bring up multiple screens in a browser. You can detach different pieces of a screen within a browser framework. You cannot do that with a Web-enabled system. It's the same thing with being able to command and control points. And you don't have to load a bunch of software to get access to a system. At the most, all you need is a plug-in to your browser and away you go.

The benefit to the user is the flexibility of not having to buy more software every time they want to view the system from another PC in the facility or from their home. You also have a lot more functionality with Web-based systems than with Web-enabled systems. You can also use the technology to get access to downloads of patches and updates and new features, because it is a Web-based system as opposed to being merely Web-enabled.

HPB: LonTalk and BACnet are the two most common standard protocols that are offered by BAS vendors. Is either one going to become the primary protocol for systems integration and interoperability?

Control Solutions, Inc Hill: That's not likely. Each protocol has strengths and weaknesses in terms of what it can do; we really don't care if one becomes primary or not. We look at it from customer's point of view in terms of what's the best technology for the type of system or building that they need. What's going to bring the most value to the customer and their facility, not only in the initial installation, but over the life cycle of building. So we'll use Lon and BACnet where appropriate, or use N2, which is our own standard. We will continue to participate with both industry standards associations.

What the customer should focus on is defining the outcomes they want from their systems. We can provide any standard protocol the customer wants. However, we think the Web Services model offers more benefits going forward because LonTalk and BACnet do not provide all the functionality needed, especially when co-existing on same infrastructure as IT. Will LonTalk and BACnet evolve to where that is no longer true? Probably, but they are not at that point now.

HPB: Can I trust the BAS system to be secure enough for the IT people to allow it on their network?

Hill:  This is actually one of the prime motivations for going with a Web-based system. It's something IT people are already familiar with and they can easily support Web-based BAS systems just as they do their own systems. We have to be flexible enough to work with whatever security processes they have, particularly for network security, so that we can adjust and use our products within their framework.

There are some customers who have separate networks, because there are some things that are mission-critical to their organizations, and they will never allow you to use those networks. And that's OK, too, because even if you have multiple networks, you still have IT managing the networks as opposed to having facilities people manage a whole separate infrastructure as part of the BAS network. So we can ride on the network and we can put some of the BAS components within their data centers, so the equipment can be maintained and be backed up by the same UPS system, and can be in a quality controlled environment appropriate for IT systems. The IT people can trust it to be secure, because it is using the same software they are using on their servers.

HPB: Often, IT people are resistant to putting building systems on their networks because it's an unknown. Some typical questions are: What is the security on the network? Who is going to administer and manage the system? What kind of load is it going to put on my IT network?

Hill:  With Web-based systems, we can say security is not a problem, because we will use something you already know, the same industry standard security infrastructure. Who's going to administer the network? That's an organizational issue, depending on the structure of the organization. It's a decision for them to make. The additional load on the network? We can provide detailed information about that, but typically it doesn't come close to the kind of traffic that would cause problems with the IT functions.

HPB: It seems strange that the computer I purchased with my BAS system 5 years ago is still working fine but my laptop has been replaced twice in the meantime to keep up with technology. Will I get significantly better performance from my BAS by upgrading to a newer PC?

Hill:  Desktops are often inherently faster than laptops because of the way they are designed. A laptop is designed to maximize mobility, where a desktop is not, and so the focus is more on speed. We're finding that customers don't typically sit in front of the BAS workstation like they used to. Customers are mobile, out and about in the facility, and so they don't depend on the workstation as much as they used to because it doesn't fit their needs. The laptop fits their needs because it is mobile; just like a PDA or pager. That's one reason that the laptop computer has evolved and is turned over every 2.5 years as opposed to every 5, because people are using it more, putting more applications on it, as opposed to always using the main workstation.

Another way to look at it - with a Web-based system, there isn't this paradigm of the workstation anymore. That capability is embedded in the devices that are hanging on the wall, and in the equipment rooms. Upgrading your PC doesn't necessarily give you more functionality. More mobility is what customers really need, because way they work in their facilities has changed.

HPB: Is there anything else that is important for building owners and engineers to understand about these new technologies?

Hill:  Inherently, we're saying that we need to look at the IT world for new technologies, for new developments and new standards. In the BAS world, the cumulative sum of all the R&D that's going on is dwarfed by what's going on in the computer and IT and other industry worlds. We have to look there (outside) for the technologies that will bring the most value to our customers, as well as for new standards that can help our industry.


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