Buildings IoT

Understanding the OT Backbone

By Clint Bradford | September 18, 2018

What it is, why it’s crucial to an IoT building integration and what your integrator should be doing to maximize its potential.


Whether you’re a building owner, operator or investor, you’re familiar with IT and the role it plays in buildings. It’s less likely you know what OT is and what it’s doing in your building, even though it’s equally important to the security and functionality of your assets. OT and the OT backbone stand for operational technology. It’s critical that everyone who enters a building have at least a baseline understanding of what OT includes.

IT covers the network gear and know-how that connects computers and public-facing devices. OT is the hardware and software that monitors and can affect change in the building itself. Increasingly, OT also includes networks and networking devices like routers and modems. That’s where things get interesting.

Networks are made of connected things that need to communicate with one another on a regular basis. Anytime you have a network you have data packets traveling back and forth. And anytime there’s data passing through copper, fiber or cellular cables there’s opportunity for hackers to steal those packets for nefarious purposes.

But this isn’t a story to make you scared. Our purpose here is to explain how things have changed, how you can protect your assets and what a good system integrator can help you accomplish.

How the OT Backbone has changed building integration

The OT network of today makes it possible to connect controllers across building systems. The OT backbone also creates a secure highway for data to transmit to a cloud – off site or on premise. From there, composite data is delivered through a dashboard for machines and people to analyze and proactively monitor.

From an integration perspective, this changes everything. Connectivity is our business, and it’s the core element of the IoT.

How Operational Technology can help protect your assets in the IoT

Integral to any high functioning OT backbone are network switches. Switches allow operators to control the flow of information without having to run extra fiber. Although fiber can be more expensive than copper, switches make fiber cost-competitive.

An OT backbone is also flexible enough to handle fluctuating bandwidth, and scalable without opening additional ports. These features reduce security risks and limit calls to IT for building ops requests.

What your System Integrator should be doing for your OT Network

The OT Network is squarely in the wheelhouse of your master systems integrator. This team should be on the project from the beginning. This ensures proper design that incorporates security, scalability, flexibility, cost-effectiveness, future-proofing.

While the OT Network establishes a certain amount of autonomy between OT and IT teams, at least at the outset the buck stops with IT. Your MSI should be able to answer all of your IT team’s questions to ensure they are comfortable with the design and operational procedures that the OT Network will bring.

Your Master Systems Integrator should be your go-to for everything related to the OT network. This includes design to installation and commissioning, graphic rendering and ongoing management. If you’re interested in more about how an OT Network can fit into your building operation and ownership strategy, contact your MSI.



Buildings IoT

Building Analytics are Difficult – Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Otherwise

By Clint Bradford | July 10, 2018

There’s a paradox in the analytics landscape today, especially for building analytics. On the one hand, analytics seem to be everywhere. Take an autonomous vehicle like Tesla. When you buy a self-driving car today, the analytics system is not part of the sales pitch. But everyone knows they’re there. How else could a self-driving car work without analytic rules in the code and data scientists in the background?

Eventually, this will be true for all controllers as building analytics will be standard. But right now, IoT buildings diverge from the rest of the analytics industry in key ways. First, everyone in commercial real estate asks for analytics without understanding how those building analytics can be applied. Second, there’s misunderstanding on how building analytics may affect existing workflows. And finally, projects start without established goals for what the building analytics system should achieve.

The rise of analytics makes it easy to take for granted their implementation in smart buildings. Obviously, a building is not a self-driving car.

overview of building analytics

Factors That Contribute to the Difficulty of Deploying Building Analytics

Typical building projects fall victim to two major constraints – time and expertise. This leaves contractors in a bind and can result in cut corners on building analytics because they’re the last thing to get implemented into the system.

The reality of today’s building controls contractors is they’re using the same resource to manage the project, engineer the system, deploy it, integrate it, build the graphical user interface, deploy the building analytics and train the end user. No one can be good at all of that, especially on an abbreviated timeline.

The popularity of analytics also makes it seem like something easy to deploy. In my conversations with clients, it’s hard for most to explain how they will apply the analytics in their system, what specific rules they want to run, what insights and actions they want to gain from the analytics.

Even with the huge focus on analytics across industries, for smart buildings, analytics often become an afterthought. We find that’s because most people aren’t thinking beyond the initial roll-out. What happens when you receive analytics alerts or sparks? What are you going to do with monthly analytics reports? How will you respond to the inefficiencies that the analytics system identifies throughout your building?

False Claims About Building Analytics

First, we often hear people discussing how easy it is to gain access to a building database. I actually find this to be one of the most challenging aspects of integration and analytics. There are so many different, proprietary building systems with so many different communication protocols and obscure point-naming schemes. There is precious little standardization in this industry (efforts like Project Haystack are making huge strides which is exciting to see but these challenges still remain across the board).

As with accessing any database, there are also security concerns. Accessing building databases requires involvement from different players across teams, from facilities to IT, from a single location to a corporate headquarters. A good rule of thumb we follow is if it sounds too easy to be true, it probably is.

Too often we hear the market say “let us run analytics on your data.” Or “we can have analytics running against your data in minutes.” I strongly question these claims. No building is the same, and no database is the same. Deploying true building analytics that make an impact is hard, don’t let anyone tell you differently. Successful deployment of building analytics requires a talented team of engineers, data scientists and data analysts to truly make a building more efficient through analytics.

The Way Forward

To overcome these obstacles and join other industries in successfully utilizing analytics solutions, we need to treat buildings like living, breathing things. Analytics engines are only the first step in really understanding your building. In order to continue gaining value from the system, consider its future from the beginning. How will you continue to maintain the building efficiently? What plans are in place to fix issues once the integrator has moved on to other projects? Who on your team has the interest and expertise to manage the analytics long into the future? What training do you have in place to promote efficiency with your workforce?

We’ve found that it helps to have champions on your team who show interest not only in the energy and operational efficiencies of your buildings, but who embrace new technologies with a healthy dose of curiosity. It’s also important to have a plan for phase two of the analytics, when the deployment is complete and the alerts start rolling in. Clear delineation of maintenance and training responsibilities is crucial for continued success.

With the answers to these questions and a trusted partner who will be honest with you, you’ll be well on your way to a smarter, more efficient operation.

Buildings IoT

What I Learned and Didn’t Learn at Realcomm IBCon 2018

By Clint Bradford | June 12, 2018

Our team is back to our respective offices after Realcomm/IBCon brought more than a handful of us out to Las Vegas. This show always offers an interesting mix of perspectives from service providers like OTI to manufacturers like SkyFoundry, Optigo, Dell and Intel to end users including Berkshire Hathaway, CBRE, JLL, GGP, Cushman & Wakefield, you get the picture. It’s a unique mix of people representing various aspects of real estate investment and innovation.

The Realcomm organization was celebrating its 20th conference this year and for one of my colleagues, last week marked his 13th consecutive Realcomm\IBCon. While it was only my third foray and OTI’s first as an exhibitor, I noticed both familiar refrains and new ideas permeating the show from the exhibit hall to the session rooms. Here are a few takeaways:

Back to Basics

New people are entering the industry all the time and IT folks are getting involved in more levels of controls and operations so it’s good that we continue having conversations around the basics of systems, networks and security. The construction process is still not finely tuned when it comes to integrating building systems. More conversation around the basics and the process of involving Owners, General Contractors, IT personnel, and Master System Integrators creates a better process that will lead to more efficiencies. I’m definitely optimistic.

Realcomm IBCon 2018 was hosted in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Agree to Disagree

Speaking of OT, IT, systems, networks and security, the question of convergence once again reigned supreme. No one seems to agree on the best approach for networking IT and OT devices. Same network? Different network? The jury is out indefinitely, but there was plenty of ping-ponging on the subject. Some integrators firmly said yes to converged networks, whereby OT devices live on IT networks through one or two extremely locked-down access points. Other integrators insisted that separate networks are the only way to insure the highest levels of security and network uptime.

Here’s my take: First, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to system integrations. Second, there are a lot of new products on the market. It makes sense that IT teams are hesitant to allow a converged network in their buildings. Their questions are good ones – how secure are these new devices? Have they really been put through the same rigorous testing to which we subject our IT devices?

During a couple sessions on convergence, end users were on hand to discuss how they’re expanding teams of white-hat-hackers. These groups test all devices that come into their networks. This increasingly includes OT devices, driving OT teams and IT teams closer together. In my view, this is a very good thing.

From the end user perspective, it’s encouraging to hear agreement around value added when devices talk with one another. It doesn’t matter what we call the network.

A hub of smart building innovation, Vegas was the perfect backdrop to an intelligent buildings conference.

Debate on Digital Twins

The concept of digital twins has been around since 2002. It started reaching mainstream audiences a couple years ago and Realcomm focused on the idea in a variety of ways. I can see advantages of a development environment for experimentation with new controls, analytics and operations processes. We’re at the very early stages of this, though. We need to see it pencil out before we can confidently deploy this approach without compromising project delivery.

A few people posited that this digital twin approach wouldn’t have any impact on project completion time or budget, but can we be sure of that?

Aaahhh Analytics

The Realcomm IBCon show this year, and others so far in 2018, have made it clear there is no longer a debate about analytics. Most vendors have some sort of analytics package and most end users perk up at the word.

This is great to see. It suggests analytics will be more widespread in integration projects. With that, the future of building controls and operations will be more efficient and long-lasting. It was also clear that everyone is “doing analytics” making it harder to tell who is offering a valuable system. Loose standards make it hard for property owners, investors and managers to evaluate competing analytics systems. There are a lot of people saying they have deployed analytics. Experience has confirmed building analytics are hard. Additionally, they require professional engineers and data analysts to really have an impact.

Now that we agree that analytics are crucial, we need to dig deeper into what makes them successful in buildings. Are we really taking full advantage of all the data we’re collecting?

Final Thoughts

If the mark of a good show is leaving with more questions than answers, I’d say this year’s Realcomm was a success. Our industry still runs in circles around big topics but there is enough progress to keep me excited about the future.

Want to read more about what went down at the show? Revisit this post about the Digie Awards and our case studies page for peek at what we presented at the Showcase. Also check out our Twitter feed where we were live-tweeting some key sessions.

*Photo 1 by Dom Crossley on Flickr ; Photo 2 by Nelo Hatsuma on FlickrPhoto 3 by Schnitzel_bank on Flickr

Integration Projects

Two New Building Controls Case Studies on Expansive GGP Projects

By Clint Bradford | October 17, 2017

We’ve published two new building controls case studies on different aspects of our ongoing integration relationship with General Growth Properties. First, we took a look back at the details of a retrofit project at The Shoppes at Buckland Hills Mall. The case study focuses on The S4 Group Open: BACnet N2 router. We chose this solution because the project required us to work with the existing Johnson Controls legacy OT backbone.

GGP Ala Moana mall

The goal was to integrate into our energy and facilities front-end. The S4 router did it at a fraction of the cost of rip-and-replace. There’s more to the story too, which you can read in our Technology Case Studies section on the website.

In the second new building controls case study, we look at the Ala Moana Center Ewa Expansion project. This project is a shining example of how expansions and retrofits can enhance energy management and reduce energy consumption. This building controls case study covers the systems OTI integrated throughout the new and existing structures.