November 2015
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IoT Needs ITF

Getting BAS to IoT means passing through IT-Friendly

Andy McMillanAndy McMillan
Strategy Consultant
&
President
BACnet International


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I am heading to China this month to participate in the 2015 BACnet Golden Week which will include a BACnet conference, developer training class and Plugfest, all in Shenzhen.  While I am in China I plan to see the Great Wall and that has me thinking about the challenge of integrating the worlds of BAS and IT.  You might wonder why my mind wanders in that direction.  Well, over ten years ago I wrote an article on IT and BAS where I pointed out that the technical and procedural protections employed by both IT and BAS to keep their systems safe (and reliable) were in some ways similar to the Great Wall of China.  I also pointed out that the world was evolving in a way that would require creation of passages from one through to the other. That is perhaps even more true today than it was then.  It becomes clearer all the time that for our industry to fully leverage IoT, we must first become ITF (IT-Friendly).

So, what do I mean by “IT-Friendly”?  As a definition, let’s start with this:

IT-Friendly means product and system implementation that aligns with relevant IT standards and respects IT best practices … combined with business practices that reflect an understanding of the challenges facing IT systems administrators.

Breaking it down, there are two parts, one technical and one organizational.  Let’s start with the technical one. 

Technical IT-Friendly

IT systems in most organizations have become mind-numbingly complex.  They consist of a wide array of distributed devices performing a range of functions.  Some devices perform functions of direct value to the organization, such as data servers and office PCs.  Others serve no application function but exist merely as essential elements of the infrastructure, such as network routers and switches.  Throughout the system data flows in endless intermingled streams.  The complexity of these systems and the multi-path data flows they encompass make it very difficult to fully assess the impact of adding unfamiliar components or transaction types to a system. 

Sophisticated network management tools have evolved to help IT professionals deal with security and the complexity of the systems they maintain.  Even so, complete analysis or precise modeling of real-world systems is beyond the reach of most IT groups.  As a result, they must rely on generally accepted standards complemented by industry “best practices.”   Following best practices eliminates the need for detailed analysis in many situations and minimizes the risk in many others.

The building automation industry has incorporated commercial technology borrowed from the IT community.  Such technologies include Ethernet, TCP/IP, Web servers, XML and WiFi, among others.  Many suppliers, though, have adopted technologies without regard for the “best practices” that make those technologies effective in IT environments.  For example, some BAS systems incorporate Web-based interfaces that require the use of custom Web servers or special firewall ports that complicate IT network management.   Other systems incorporate communications solutions that operate over standard IT infrastructure but violate typical infrastructure rules (such as requiring the use of a large number of static IP addresses). 

To become IT-Friendly we need to transform our thinking about BAS technology.  We need to shift from “how can we co-exist on IT infrastructure” thinking to “how can we leverage the capabilities of IT infrastructure” thinking.  Only if we do that (and do it well) will we have a platform from which we can hope to fully leverage IoT.

Organizational IT-Friendly

I believe that transforming our thinking about BAS technology is necessary for leveraging IoT, but it’s not sufficient.  We also need to transform our business practices and attitudes with regard to the IT function and IT practitioners.  We need to shift from a perspective of IT as an obstacle to IT as an enabler.

To start with, we need to acknowledge that IT groups maintain infrastructure elements that support mission-critical business applications.  Through the hard teacher called “experience,” IT professionals have learned that accidents, mistakes, carelessness and malicious behavior can all result in costly system downtime or data loss.  As a result, over the years they have learned to be cautious and to secure their IT infrastructure at multiple levels.  We also need to acknowledge that until we have fully aligned our solutions with IT standards and best practices, BAS use of IT infrastructure adds risk, complexity and effort to an IT group’s task.  Having acknowledged these realities positions us to empathize with the challenges we create for them and will lead us to help address them.  

Control Solutions, Inc We can help address the challenges we create for IT through business and communication practices that support their efforts rather than frustrate them.  For example, we can replace all-to-frequent laments about IT intransience in articles and presentations with more positive perspectives. We can also invest in documenting alignment of our solutions with IT best practices and where they are not aligned, concede that and offer real data that identifies the possible issues and quantifies the risks.  In addition we can collaborate with IT professionals and IT standards organizations to create implementation templates that make BAS utilization of IT infrastructure its own “IT best practice”. Finally, where it still exists, we can abandon the “how do we get around IT?” approach to a more productive “how do we effectively engage with IT?” approach.

Conclusion

IoT is by its very nature IT-centric.  Fully leveraging it in BAS and related solutions is going to require a constructive engagement with IT.  Working around IT or even just tolerating IT will not do it.  The stakes are high.  IoT offers the promise (not yet proven, of course) of substantial operational and cost benefits to facility managers.  Step one on the road to realizing those benefits of IoT is transforming the whole BAS industry such that it is truly IT-Friendly. 

As always, the views expressed in this column are mine and do not necessarily reflect the position of BACnet International, ASHRAE, or any other organization.  If you want to send comments to me directly, feel free to email me at andysview at arborcoast.com.


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