June 2013
Interview

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George ThomasEMAIL INTERVIEW George Thomas and Ken Sinclair

George Thomas, President, Contemporary Controls

George Thomas is president of Contemporary Controls with headquarters in Downers Grove, Illinois.  For over 35 years, Contemporary Controls has been designing and manufacturing the system building blocks used to automate buildings, machines and processes.  Contemporary Controls has manufacturing locations in the United States and China, and additional support offices in the United Kingdom and Germany.  George Thomas received his BSEE and MSEE degrees from the Illinois Institute of Technology.  He is a life senior member of IEEE and a senior member of ISA.  He currently serves on the BACnet International Education Committee.  




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What was great about Haystack Connect was that it was organized by small, mid-sized and emerging companies.

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Control Solutions, Inc

SinclairIt was nice seeing you at Haystack Connect while exploring the Chattanooga sights.  What did you think of the event?

Thomas:  I think we were the last company to sign up as an exhibitor and I am glad we came.  No sooner did we sign up that I got a call from Marc Petock offering me an opportunity to speak in the Hardware session on Embedded Linux.  With 165 people in attendance, this was not a conference to develop sales leads but it was an opportunity for our company – Contemporary Controls – to be recognized as a contributor in the building automation community.  The people who committed to 3+ days in Chattanooga were interested in pushing the state of innovation in the industry so having the opportunity to interact with them in the Hardware session on issues of their concern was invaluable.

SinclairWhat do you think of the Connected Community concept?

Thomas:  As a small company we embrace open standards and cooperation with partners.  We live the Connected Community concept because we know by ourselves that our company will not likely to be successful driving a proprietary standard.  However, if we cooperate and contribute with others we can make something happen – even among smaller competing companies.  What was great about Haystack Connect was that it was organized by small, mid-sized and emerging companies.  There was no domination by the big four BAS companies.  We felt we were leading the industry.  You need to give credit to John Petze, Scott Muench and Marc Petock for their efforts in organizing the event although at times it felt like a Tridium alumni meeting.  As for show management, Heather Deal did a nice job.  I noticed that you caught the fever.  You are organizing a Connected Community meeting at AHR Expo 2014 in New York.

SinclairWhat was your topic in the Hardware session?

Thomas:  Since the theme of the conference was Connected Communities I decided to talk about another community and that is the Linux community.  The title of my talk was Embedded Linux – a Standardized Platform for IP Applications. Embedded Linux is everywhere.  In the consumer market it is in set-top boxes, DVD and Blu-ray players, televisions and a version is in mobile phones.  It is now making its way into our building automation industry.  We have been using Embedded Linux for ten years now in our IP routers, Managed Ethernet switches, BACnet MS/TP to BACnet/IP routers, Modbus to BACnet/IP gateways and our Sedona Framework controllers.  We have a choice of processors with processing speeds up to 1.2 GHz that will work with Linux.  Linux is especially useful in IP routing applications where much of the routing technology is freely available to use without royalties.  Being part of the Linux community allows us to seek help on issues and to help others solve issues.  The Linux community is large and willing to help and many processor manufacturers support Linux.

SinclairAs a user, why should Embedded Linux be important to me?

Thomas:  I suppose that as a user you may not perceive Embedded Linux as important but it is delivering value to you and you do not know it.  As a manufacturer of networking and controls equipment it is making our job of producing innovative products in a timely manner much easier.  If we had to make a BACnet control product that communicated over an IP network from scratch, we would first need to select a processor, select an operating system, find or develop a TCP/IP stack, find or develop a web server, find or develop an Ethernet driver before we even think about the control portion of the project.  With modern-day processors, processor manufacturers provide an evaluation board, reference design, a Linux support package and technical support.  By selecting Linux for our embedded design, we are assured that an implementation is possible and by having their evaluation board we have a benchmark design that could be part of our validation testing.  By selecting Linux and using the manufacturer’s support package, we gain a TCP/IP stack, a web server and probably an Ethernet driver for free.  That saves us time and money while speeding up our time-to-market performance.  The task of developing and testing these components on our own would be immense and expensive so to answer your question – yes it is important to you as a user.

SinclairAre there any downsides to using Embedded Linux?

Thomas:  There are things you need to be aware of.  Do not assume that by embracing Linux your cares are over.  You still need to invest in learning Linux either through a self-learning method, attending classes or hiring a consultant.  The good news is that you have access to the source code but the bad news is that you have to study and use the source code.  You still need to edit your code, compile it and test it.  The work still exists but there are some open-source development tools such as Eclipse IDE that can be used.  The other issue is the higher horsepower processor requirement.  You need to be thinking about a 32-bit processor that has a memory management unit in order to benefit from all the features of Linux.  Although Linux can be implemented on less, you may come to regret your decision.  Forget about using a low-end eight-bit micro – it is not for Linux.  The last issue is boot-up time.  We like to have our intelligent devices to be functional immediately.  With Linux we need to be patient although we continually strive for faster boot-up times.

SinclairIt sounds like you are very comfortable with Linux.

Thomas:  I am and there is still more to say.  We want to add wireless to our products and we can do this by installing a wireless USB stick to an available USB port on our controllers.  If we can find a Linux driver for a USB device, we can use it on our platform.  That gives us comfort in that we would probably find an interfacing solution to some system requirement that we never anticipated.  The other comment I would make is in regard to cyber security.  Now that we are providing more IP solutions, we are frequently being asked about the security strength of our products.  When customers insist upon particular security measures we reach out to the Linux community for answers.  The benefit of a sophisticated community should not be minimized.

SinclairIn your product example you mention BACnet.  Do you see similar support for BACnet?

Thomas:  With BACnet you can roll-your-own stack, purchase a stack or join one of the open-source projects.  Regardless of your approach, you can find answers to your questions using one of the on-line communities.  For developers I would recommend the BACnet-L list hosted on the Cornell University server.  For more casual BACnet banter, I would suggest one of the groups on Linkedin.  One of the best community opportunities for developers is to participate in the annual BACnet International plugfest where issues are freely discussed with BACnet experts and practitioners.  There certainly is a BACnet community but certainly not as large as the Linux community.

Control Solutions, Inc SinclairYou mentioned Sedona Framework.  I thought that was a wireless technology?

Thomas:  Sedona Framework was developed by Tridium and resides in the open-source community.  Originally, it was targeted as a low-end wireless solution using a technology called 6LoWPAN and some companies are using it that way.  However, we found that using it as a wired technology with a Linux OS made sense because Sedona Framework was designed for IP networks.  We decided to keep it that way by giving it an Ethernet port and not worry about a fieldbus connection such as MS/TP although work continues on such an implementation.  What we did was take a BACnet/IP remote I/O device that was based on Linux and added a Sedona Virtual Machine (SVM) and we ended up with a BACnet/IP controller that can be freely-programmed using a drag-and-drop graphical programming tool such as Niagara Workbench or Sedona Workbench.  We participated in Tridium’s Sedona 1.2 beta testing program.  Tridium provides a set of components organized in kits with names such as Math, HVAC, Logic and so forth.  The systems integrator can develop a control scheme by dragging these components onto a wire sheet and linking them with “soft wires.”  Anyone with Niagara experience will know how to handle Sedona but they will notice that not all the features of Niagara exist – that was never the intention.  For those who do not know Niagara programming, they can easily learn Sedona programming because of the limited functionality – it is much simpler to use.  If a custom component is needed, it can be created but so far the components provided by Tridium are adequate.  What is really nice about Sedona is that there are no licensing fees and Niagara Workbench is common in the industry.  All we need to provide are the proper manifest files for our Sedona controller for use by Niagara Workbench which are available from our web site.

Sinclair Is there a Sedona Framework community?

Thomas:  Yes there is although not as large as either the Linux or BACnet communities.  There is at least one online community on Linkedin, one on Google Groups plus you have SedonaDev.org hosted by Tridium.  Granted, the number of vendors making Sedona Framework products remains low but we hear about other companies planning on introducing new products.   As was said at Haystack Connect, a community creates a market so we welcome other Sedona competitors.  As competitors will we share custom components with one another – as a community we should?  This will all be interesting.

Sinclair Thanks for sharing your time.

Thomas:  I enjoyed it.

Here is a link to George Thomas's presentation at event

http://www.pointview.com/data/2013/04/78/pdf/George-Thomas-UAXZKZYI-19473.pdf

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