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Article - July 2002
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Of the hundreds-of-thousands of intelligent devices produced by manufacturers in Building Management System (BMS) space, many incompatibilities exist between these devices and their "device specific" communication protocols.   

Jonathan Buckley, VP
Marketing and Business Development
jbuckley@netbrowser.com
 NetBrowser Communications

NetBrowser has pioneered and patented an enterprise monitoring software suite, e-Guardian®, for what it calls The Zero Layer™, or the facility foundations layer upon which critical IT systems depend. NetBrowser’s Fortune 1000 customer base has plenty of stories of how they avoided disasters and boost uptime using this new technology.


Today's Building Management Systems (BMS) have a heritage in industrial automation and controls. The nature of building and industrial automation requirements is that it requires a constant streaming of data from the equipment level to back to a central control computer and often times over distances and through environments not well suited for what is now standard (non-industrial networking), Ethernet cabling. Furthermore, the constant streaming of data on the larger corporate network was rightly seen as a burdensome bandwidth overhead. The typically long cable runs through environmentally hostile factory environments make for a difficult application of the corporate Ethernet. Several other factors existed when BMS technology was developed years ago:

Because of these conditions during the development of industrial automation technologies, such systems, and their BMS cousins, tend to require proprietary communication wiring and protocol allowing for a dedicated, shielded network. Two protocol standards, each normally requiring their own dedicated wiring plant, emerged out of this automation-heritage marketplace:

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These standards have subsequently been adopted, but because of the limitations imposed by the technology at that time, BMS implementations have largely been localized, resulting in islands of information that are not easily aggregated, analyzed, and utilized. Therefore, the potential "gold mine" of facility intelligence within the facility assets that could support customers, under constant pressure to reduce operating costs and better understand how to improve overall return on assets, is simply not readily available.

In both factory and building automation, the activity of management and control is largely still a local one. Usually the plant or building is substantial enough in size that to provide a dedicated network to carry the constant stream of data to a central console and a round-the-clock engineering crew to manage operations offers few challenges.

Of the hundreds-of-thousands of intelligent devices produced by manufacturers in Building Management System (BMS) space, many incompatibilities exist between these devices and their "device specific" communication protocols. This is even true when the products are from the same vendor. Moreover, the various proprietary systems require expensive unreliable and slow phone links (usually dialup) for each subsystem. Lastly, each product line requires different control stations, which increases maintenance costs and technical complexity.

Challenges that BMS Vendors Face

Furthermore, the current BMS vendors have always been behind the technology curve. Widely used standards and technologies have barely begun to penetrate the BMS product offerings. Standards like TCP/IP, XML, and RDBMS' have been commonly used in commercial applications for over 20 years, but the current BMS vendors haven't embraced these standards. Instead, each BMS vendor develops "home-grown" solutions for connectivity, data management and data analysis. More recent technologies like Java, web-based connectivity, e-mail, etc. have yet to appear in current BMS product offerings. Their reluctance to embrace current standards has complicated facility management operations and greatly increased ongoing maintenance costs to building owners and operators.

BMS vendors relish the current state of affairs. By imposing proprietary protocols and technologies, they, in effect, lock their customer into a steady revenue stream for maintenance, upgrades and service. Because the difficulty of interconnecting the vast number of embedded facility systems seems so great, customers tolerate the current state of affairs. BMS vendors continue to exploit the revenue stream, and their customers are not offered better options.

One might conclude that the BMS manufacturers have consciously created (and maintained) this environment to effectively limit their customer's choices to "proprietary" building automation solutions. This conclusion is supported by the fact that these same incompatibilities exist in products supplied by the same manufacturer within a single facility. It is typical to find multiple control stations supporting building automation tasks operating as standalone control points, each control point requiring manual oversight. This "proprietary" scenario is further exacerbated when a building owner/operator has multiple facilities. Furthermore, these proprietary systems simply don't scale very well. Handling multiple sites becomes ever more complex and costly. Finally, remote management is almost non-existent with these proprietary solutions. They were designed to accommodate only the local building in which they're resident. There is simply no way to efficiently collect and aggregate data to provide meaningful decision support information.

In response to the new market demands for remote access to the systems, at best, BMS companies are now making an attempt at modernizing their systems by adding IP gateways at each site, for either a web "enabled" access to the system or to link multiple sites via the Ethernet network. More common are the use of a system modem and an analog phone line for the system to dial out alarms and to allow user dial-ins for trending and remote diagnosis. This is troublesome because:

Despite the New Internet Economy demands on BMS companies, we find that the older technology building management systems have only made simple extensions into the task of monitoring the mission critical data environments.

The Resulting Inefficient Facilities System Environment

The technology limitations, the inefficient and redundant infrastructure, and the required "manual" intervention result in an inefficient systems environment. Two examples will illustrate this: (a) dial-up communications (b) data collection process (rounds and readings, data trending, and diagnostics).

Traditional BMS systems are equipped with dial-up connections as the "de facto" standard for communications. These workstation-centric, modem-oriented systems have many limitations. To begin with, they are expensive to install, maintain, and operate. In addition, the traditional controller and field gear networks can't route traffic over the Internet, so each device requires dedicated dial-up communications. Furthermore, current BMS vendors do not provide coherent systems to collect data. Lastly, the workstation-centric systems are intrinsically limited in the number and type of connections they support. In summary, traditional dial-up data collection, cleansing and conditioning takes too long and cost far too much to install and operate for each site.

Aside from the limitations of dial-up connections, the traditional data collection process is inefficient in rounds and readings, data trending, and diagnostics. First of all, rounds and readings are among the most common tasks and among the most labor intensive. Facilities personnel carry a clipboard or personal digital assistant (PDA) to each device, recording important measurements as they go. On completion of the rounds and readings tour, the facility personnel manually upload the readings to a laptop or desktop computer and manually initiate data upload via modem to the analysis workstation. Other facilities personnel manually capture and load the rounds and readings data into the collection database and manually generate exception and analysis reports. Because these processes are so labor intensive and costly, rounds and readings are performed only for the most critical environments, such as data centers, manufacturing plants and semiconductor fabrication facilities. In addition, the exception and analysis reports that may be produced do not form the basis of closed-loop facilities control; they only provide value in identifying the largest fires to fight.

Second, data trending is similar to rounds and readings, but often exhibits greater automation. Facility personnel usually initiate data collection with manual procedures to capture readings stored in controllers. After collecting the data over dial-up modems, the facilities personnel manually load the data into the analysis database, and then manually perform exception and analysis reporting. As for rounds and readings, the trending functions serve mainly to identify problems for firefighting.

Third, diagnostics, by definition, provide the basis for problem resolution and other firefighting activities. Facility personnel customarily use laptop computers to collect metrics. They manually upload data sets to support specialists. The specialists manually perform the data loading, cleansing, purification and analysis functions, using manually generated reports. Again, the labor intensity is high, so time rarely exists to take predictive action, only problem remediation.

Zero LayerNew Technology to Overcome BMS Shortfalls

With the new demands of the distributed mission critical facility marketplace, companies must look into solutions that can unify these disparate data islands while being mindful of bandwidth overhead, network security, scalability and system stability. A starting point is in recognizing the need to interconnect this critical facilities foundational layer that we refer to as the Zero Layer. This foundational layer includes power, environmental, fire safety, space, and physical security machinery, such as uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), air conditioning units, fire panel, and other environmental equipment. Study after study shows than somewhere between 30% and 50% of the failure in the IT network and systems has a root cause in the Zero Layer facilities foundational inputs.

New tools such as NetBrowser's e-Guardian® are now coming to the market to begin to address this forgotten piece of the facilities foundation layer. With these solutions, it is finally possible to manage all the facilities as a single unified network. These solutions are equipped with an Agent code that directly connects to the facility device using the manufacturers' own code and then directly connects to the IP network through the employment of a common serial to Ethernet appliance. The facility machinery, such as a generator, simply becomes a node on the corporate network. Using this patented process, the Agent sends a once-per-minute compressed packet to the server which resides somewhere on the WAN or the Internet. The workload of monitoring each second stays local to the machine so data does not need to stream over the network.

With solutions such as e-Guardian®, by simply plugging an Agent into the device and the existing network a company can economically monitor all distributed critical sites through one web portal. There are no "IP-Gateways" creating single points of failure and driving up expense when a remote facility needs to be brought online. Using TCP-IP and the latest encryption technologies on a Linux operating system, it provides the most reliable, secure and stable monitoring technology in the world. These solutions do not eliminate the use of a BMS for its intended purpose - local control. Instead, it focuses on its intended purpose - to make sure the company receives the most robust critical facilities information within the Zero Layer as reliably and as quickly as possible so that its network does not skip a beat.

Built on new era architectures that directly monitor and predict the health and well being of the foundational layer and link them to the rest of the distributed IT network and systems, these tools now hold promise to provide the same visibility into the IT enterprise as the CFO would expect of his/her financial system.

Requirements in New Technology Evaluation

What are some of the requirements when evaluating solutions to overcome the BMS shortfalls and better unlock the value in this facilities foundational layer by managing as a single unified network?

Make sure your solution…

So that…

Incorporates software tools that provide a unified view of all the power, fire, environmental and physical security equipment in all parts of your enterprise

You manage all of the foundational equipment in one cost effective, integrated fashion regardless of the number of locations. IT and Facilities can understand, without delay the status of remote site health through one portal.

Scale from the enterprise right down to the computer rack and back up again, making sure that not even a Telco closet becomes a missing link in the chain.  Manage through one portal accessible from anywhere.

You cover the entire the input level of the supply chain rather than only selective components, to reduce downtime and cost.

Connect seamlessly to all manufacturers and types of foundational machinery

You eliminate machine vendor dependency, save money, and have one view of all vendors, types and locations of equipment.

Allow flexibility in accessing the system data

If IT and Facilities are to unite interests, you must have the flexibility to access the system and its data from anywhere, in various formats, using a simple browser, MS Excel™, or wireless PDAs.

Provide the highest level of data security

The corporate IT security department must be at ease so there must be no dependency on modems, security holes in the firewalls, or any users coming from outside the firewall to access information

Work without hogging much bandwidth on your corporate network

You avoid additional cost of dedicated data lines and conflicts with IT over traffic concerns. Be able to grow the solution without worries of future network growth needs.

Provide for the same level of N+1 redundancy you expect from critical network systems

You get a dependable monitoring solution that monitors and safeguards your data, no matter what happens.

Provide for ease of installation and maintenance

The IT department can understand, support and help install the system without costly outside system integration specialists.

In conclusion, proactive managing of your facilities as one, complete enterprise network can help businesses avoid the costly outages and downtime associated with unplanned failure in their facilities machinery. Getting to this information is a challenging task that few companies ever accomplish, especially given the external pressures and implementation obstacles today. As companies seek solutions to automate their entire infrastructure, they must look holistically at the key requirements and leverage the benefits of new technologies coming to the market over the next few years.


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