The Role of the OT Master Systems Integrator

By Brian Turner, President, OTI

A good Master Systems Integrator (MSI) can do a lot of things to help building owners and IT groups navigate the complexities of the Internet of Things, particularly on the Operational Technology side of the house. The MSI should offer a host of system-specific knowledge, with deep understanding of HVAC controls, lighting controls, or energy monitoring in any number of combinations. The most successful MSIs also have some IT expertise on staff to help with the design and implementation of the OT network.

The OT challenge for IT is never the connection. The process to connect OT devices is no different than the process for most IT devices. The biggest knowledge gap between IT and OT teams, which leads to IT discomfort, is the application of the devices and how the OT systems transmit and use the building data.

This chasm will not close quickly because OT devices like sensors are rapidly multiplying within buildings’ OT systems. In these discussions, the MSI is a consultant to the building owner, pointing out the right course for optimal OT functionality within the IT purview, or to represent the owner in discussions with the specific OT vendors. A key thing to note: it is rare for MSIs to actually install the OT systems connected to the IT backbone, this remains the domain of controls contractors, and rightfully so.

Rethinking the MSI Role

So far, the MSI has not been elevated to the role of an architect, security consultant, network infrastructure provider, or ERP solution for buildings and the companies that own them. It is quite common for enterprises to standardize on a technology like Cisco or Microsoft for network infrastructure and operating systems. It is also common to standardize on access control and video platforms, even contractors. But there is little standardization among electrical distribution systems, HVAC control, or lighting control.

Given the growing role of data, semantic tagging, analytics, network access, and customer specific knowledge required for successful IoT projects, it is now time to consider building-wide standardization for operational technology systems, and to rethink the owner/operator relationship with master systems integrators.

Most MSIs working today grew out of HVAC controls companies, so in many cases, HVAC controls are still in their DNA. The knowledge this brings to OT projects is invaluable, but that controls background has made it difficult for some MSIs to put the controls business in the back seat as they work to determine what makes sense for a building owner and their IT team. This history can also make it difficult to be objective when an owner wants to use a technology other than the one the MSI has most familiarity with.

Evolve or Perish

While the term Master Systems Integrator may be a new one for the building automation industry, those who call themselves MSIs today don’t just have former HVAC controls contractors to worry about as competition. There is a growing crop of IT consulting firms that are working on building problems from the other end of the network, with full knowledge of how to perform the MSI role without the legacy loyalties to any specific product or the urge to get bogged down in implementing OT sub-systems. True, those IT consulting firms don’t yet have the OT fully figured out, but you can bet they’re working on it, through acquisitions, field experience or both.

Ultimately, while there is a bit of consulting built into the MSI role, master systems integrators have to provide more than just an analyst’s-eye-view of the challenges building owners face today and in the IoT future. This means we will need to be engaged with clients for many years, with active roles and solid seats at the decision-making table. Where I believe MSIs can offer the most value is in OT infrastructure, integrated databases, building analytics and data visualization.

These areas are becoming increasingly relevant to IT groups and the C-suite they answer to, but while the MSIs who come from legacy IT consultancies are still getting up to speed on the OT systems, those with controls experience will rise to the top of the list if they’re able to translate system-specific knowledge into a broader understanding of how those systems should work within a whole-building network infrastructure. With all of these changes and new opportunities, it’s an exciting time to be in the expanding building automation industry.

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