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|Today’s Smart Building Data
Exhaust May Be Tomorrow’s Machine-Learning Gold
Smart Building Owners should remain vigilant in the battle against vendor lock-in of their building data.
back the Internet!” is the Net Neutrality movement’s rallying cry
against big telecom and cable companies. “Take back your life!“ say
digital privacy advocates in warning against the online advertising
industry. “Take back your enterprise!” is how the Open Source software
movement positioned itself vis-a-vis big-brand business software.
And, “Take back your building!” is how the open-protocol building
automation community has framed its alternative to protocol lock-in by
None of these battles started yesterday, and none of
them will end tomorrow. Caveat Emptor,
a principle of business so
infernal and eternal that you have to say it in Latin, applies: If the
people using data and investing in data tools don’t get educated,
vendors are going to act in their own self-interest. The battle against
building data lock-in could be moving to a new arena, from serial
cabling protocols to the Application Program Interfaces (APIs) defined
by Cloud-hosted applications. Let’s not let that happen.
Yesterday’s BMS Protocol Wars
The history of the building controls industry is marked by stages of vendor lock-in. When the buildings industry was first going digital decades ago, BMS manufacturers wrote their own protocols to transport data over serial cable. They made these proprietary, providing keys only to technicians within their sales channel with the result that they had a near monopoly when future service and upgrading was required. These service revenue streams were more valuable than the original price of the systems. It then became a practice to price low during the initial bidding process, with the intention of charging captive customers more later. This led to complacent, slow-to-innovate vendors and unhappy customers who felt they were being milked with every service call. These are all good lessons that no one wants to relearn.
BACnet and other open communications standards were meant to put an end to this syndrome and bring back market forces. With open standards, controls contractors could work on equipment from multiple brands and customers could again run competitive bids for their business. The lock-in practice died slowly though, as Darren Wright, a Director at Arup explains here. For a while, OEMs could say they were BACnet-compliant, but still maintain proprietary protocols at the BMS controller-level.The era of the Internet of Things is expected to finally bring the serial cable protocol wars to their conclusion. But, a similar approach to vendor lock-in, or even worse, could happen with closed APIs within cloud services.
An Open Future Demands Open SDKs
In the interest of Caveat
Emptor, any project teams evaluating cloud solutions should ask
vendors “Will near-realtime and historical trend data be available to
us when we want it?” If the answer is “We have APIs.”— red flag. APIs are not enough! If any
company is holding your building’s HVAC, lighting, power meter or other
operational data in their cloud, the chance that you will be able to
access it in a practical way via their APIs is quite slim. What you
want to be asking cloud service vendors is “Do you supply free Software
Developer Kits (SDKs) in open source languages?” If you opt for only
cloud services that provide this assurance, your data won’t be held for
ransom when the inevitable day comes that you need it for your
company’s own internal purposes or to supply as data streams to other
vendors. Here are a few more guidelines:
The Project Haystack open source community provides a
good example of the type of Software Development Kit support needed to
ease data interoperability in a full range of use cases:
Predictive Value in
As more and more sensors and digital devices are
introduced into buildings, digitizing more physical processes at
tighter intervals, it is a natural impulse to look for ways to hand-off
the burden of managing all that data. Except for the tip-of-the-iceberg
analytics results, new data just seems like new problems—so much data
exhaust with no real value. But, when a cloud service takes your data
and starts observing operations and applying algorithms, new value is
being created. The vendor has a right to its portion of that value, but
the newly calculated data should also be readily accessible to the
customer, i.e. the building owner. Software companies may be a step
of facilities managers and building owners about machine learning and
artificial intelligence concepts; however, customers too want to get
all the predictive value possible from their buildings’ digital
streams. As we covered in our September article, it is imperative
building owner takes the reins of their operational data strategy
today. This is how they can position for success as we move into an era
of more autonomous buildings.
Deciding among platforms for energy management and building operations management is challenging. There are so many. But, the lessons that the buildings industry has learned from the past should inform next steps. The general software industry offers its lessons as well. All the critical plumbing components in enterprise business stacks have moved toward open source software.
The home automation industry offers its own parable illustrating why you shouldn’t entrust your building data to a single vendor with closed APIs and data feeds. When Google Nest shut down, or ‘bricked,’ the Revolv home hub in April 2016 it rattled the tech industry at large and the emerging IoT industry particularly. It’s notable that Google parent company Alphabet’s next step was to open source the Thread protocol that Nest uses for communications.
The takeaway lessons are, don't be lured into a walled garden by a shiny interface, a low initial cost, and promises that your data will be well taken care of by a cloud vendor. Ask questions to ensure your data will be open to your future uses. Weigh the pro’s and con’s of on-premise, in-the-cloud, and at-the-edge computing and storage, and negotiate a fair price for keeping as much of the resulting data as is practical and affordable. It may be the cache you need for machine-learning training in the future. The motivations of your in-house IT department and/or professional hosting services are more aligned with your own regarding how your building data is best stored and secured.
The IoT era promises a new beginning and faster innovation cycles, but not necessarily simplicity — at least not in this early transition time. The buildings industry should arm itself with the right people and resources to navigate the complexity and not fall prey again to vendor lock-in as it did in the early 1990s.
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