Buildings IoT

5 questions with Rob Vandenberg, OTI’s new director of managed services

By Controlco Blog | March 7, 2018

At first glance, the aviation industry and the commercial buildings industry don’t have a lot in common. In aviation, the operation of equipment and assets is typically a matter of life or death. In buildings, often the worst-case scenario is lots of hot/cold calls. Of course, there are critical aspects of building management too, especially these days as operational technology networks gain access to the internet, but on the whole, airline asset management has innovated faster than commercial building asset management for good reason. Our new Director of Managed Services Rob Vandenberg comes from that world and now he’s here. Following our announcement that he has joined our team, we wanted to take a minute to talk with him about what the commercial buildings industry can learn from the airline industry, where there may be surprising similarities, and how software can be the universal equalizer.

Rob, welcome to OTI! I know you’ve only been with us a short time, but when you look at the commercial buildings industry, do you see any parallels with the aviation industry when you started there 20-or-so years ago?

Thanks, I’m happy to be here! There are definitely a few similarities that come to mind when thinking about the aviation and commercial buildings industries. First, the assets in aviation contain many sensors that generate a lot of data about the operation and condition of the assets. Second, several decades ago, an industry-wide infrastructure called ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) was created to transmit messages containing this information between aircraft and ground stations.  While this was a common infrastructure to all commercial aircraft operators, many of the software systems that used it – particularly those related to asset management and performance monitoring – were built in-house by individual operators or airlines.  There was an appetite for commercially available software systems that can be applied more broadly, but that transition is still ongoing.

When I look at commercial buildings industry today, I see many parallels to the aviation industry at that time.  Sensors and meters on assets generating data that is available through a common, standard infrastructure and an industry that is looking for commercially available software solutions to optimize the operations of their assets.

At this point of technological advancement, would you say software is built on the same principles no matter the industry? Is this a development advantage?

Right now, enabling technologies have made it so that software development efforts for individual industries can move much faster to deployment.  The commercial buildings industry doesn’t have to invest in an infrastructure like the aviation industry did several decades ago, it can leverage the infrastructure and technological advances that are now available to all industries.  I’m thinking the Industrial Internet (also known as the Internet of Things or IoT) and the Cloud in particular. So, we don’t have to build nearly as much enabling tech just to get started on industry solutions – which is a huge development advantage compared to 20 years ago.

What are some challenges you ran up against with your airline asset management software? Have you identified any particular hurdles yet in the commercial buildings space?

Aviation is a heavily regulated industry – only other industries I can think of that would be more regulated than aviation are nuclear and potentially healthcare – so the regulatory and compliance aspects required in the software were quite high. Also, aircraft and aircraft engines are large, expensive and complex assets requiring equally large and complex organization to manage them.  When you add in the operational context – the assets are continuously moving all over the world! – the result is a set of requirements for a very large and complicated set of software solutions.

Another challenge we continuously confronted as we were trying to build a commercial solution was vastly different legacy systems within organizations with little existing integration or standardization. This made projects longer and much more complex. We also found that while we were on the way to  building a standard commercial solution, it was difficult to move aircraft operators away from of their unique requirements. This resulted in highly configurable systems that are frankly difficult to build and maintain, and projects that had a lot of customizations. That’s difficult to scale.

With buildings, I see an opportunity to move faster. There just may be more appetite for more universal systems in the commercial buildings industries and that is very exciting to me. I haven’t run into any real hurdles yet, but it is still early!

In this industry, there is much talk of siloes that run in every direction – siloes between devices that don’t talk with each other, siloes across networks, siloes within the C-suite. Was this true of the airline industry as well? What’s your advice for using software to overcome those issues?

That was definitely true of the airline industry in my experience. We were undertaking massive integrations on the systems side, and then also having to get everyone aligned on the organizational side. There was a continuous effort to re-focus on the problems we’re trying to solve and get everyone on board with those goals.

As for advice, “Don’t try to boil the ocean,” is one phrase I like to use. We can’t try to deliver on every feature all at once. The key is to deliver value early and deliver it often. The types of solutions that we’re envisioning are cost-saving solutions. Those are always harder to get attention for within an organization, compared to projects that open new revenue sources. So, to overcome that natural inclination, our cost-saving measures have to show value early and they have to lead us to become valued partners to our customers – both through the life of a project and through a long-term relationship. And finally, industry standardization cannot be overlooked. Proprietary options are always going to cost more while working on more limited scale.

What are you most excited about when you look at the to-do list for your new position with OTI?

Prior to working in the aviation industry, I was involved in a project that built a condition-based maintenance system in an industrial steel mill.  So much has changed technology-wise since then, but I’m reminded of that work now that I’m with OTI. What’s exciting is there is more standardization today and the enabling technologies have made tremendous gains. Plus, data is more readily available. So, I’ll be able to build something much more robust – and much faster – than I was able to over 20 years. Also, OTI is very well positioned to succeed in this space; OTI has a very strong customer base that is receptive to asset management and performance monitoring offerings and OTI has already made significant investment in the backbone infrastructure that will run these solutions.

Follow along as Rob and OTI work on the next generation of asset management for commercial buildings. Subscribe to out blog. Connect with OTI and Rob on LinkedIn. Follow us on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter. Exciting things are on the horizon – we hope you’ll join us.

*Featured photo by Joseph DePalma on Flickr.

Buildings IoT

Building controls hardware to data – what am I, chopped liver?

By Natalie Jacobs | November 28, 2017

value of data

These days, most people in the buildings industry will tell you that the value of data has exceeded the value of the devices that capture the data. Does that mean you can just throw your data on any device within any network? Not exactly.

At a recent user conference for a popular building analytics software platform we overheard plenty of people talking about hardware. Most of the people doing the talking were those who were attending as representatives of software companies. The silent consensus was that software is great and obviously necessary for buildings to catch up on the data revolution. But while the value of hardware may be going down in a global sense, devices are still crucial to data collection and analysis.

That’s partially because software isn’t something you can see or touch. When we’re talking with building owners, we’re seeing that yes, they know they need data but the sales pitches are blending together and it’s hard to take an idea up the chain of command. It’s also hard to realize the power of software and data in buildings without devices in the buildings.

Building data is not like internet traffic. We cannot program code bots to crawl the vents and ducts and pipes. But we can install sensors that run off fiber through switches that manage information into and out of a central and secure computer hub.

As Master Systems Integrators and building controls contractors, we’re in the hardware and the software business. We’re implementing new software into our enterprise level energy command centers and we’re constantly looking for the best hardware technologies to capture, parse and deliver that data through an OT network at rapid and continuous rates. We’re also deciding which hardware is best equipped to support that effort. In most instances of projects on new constructions, we’re looking for hardware (controllers, gateways, switches, etc.) that is:

  • IP-based
  • industrial grade
  • easily expanded
  • able to support multiple communication protocols
  • built on an open source and widely supported programming language
  • embeddable with industry-leading frameworks

With these specifications, building controls hardware can be as exciting as the high-value data crunching software that everyone’s buzzing about.

Buildings IoT

The Agony of Making an IOT Decision

By Brian Turner | October 3, 2017

Consider this scenario: A corporate real-estate executive is contemplating a presentation to the Board of Directors for her company which owns and operates a group of commercial office buildings. She is experienced at operating efficient class A properties, often improving the bottom line and increasing revenue for the buildings in her portfolio. She is very tech-savvy and has become accustomed to having access to everything in her world within a few touches on her tablet, phone, or laptop. Everything, that is, except for the operational technology assets in her buildings.

This is quite different from her home life, where, for example, she can let a visitor into her home while sitting at her favorite coffee shop. She can even watch them enter and exit via IP-connected cameras. She wonders why she doesn’t have this technology available in all her buildings. It isn’t like her company hasn’t invested millions of dollars, under her leadership. She has been trying to get this done for several years, but something isn’t right.

She wants to make her office buildings the ideal location for every potential tenant by making them functionally superior. She wants to provide things like the latest technology for security, parking, elevators, guest access, Wi-Fi, heating and air conditioning and lighting controls. She wants to provide the latest innovations in comfort and healthy environments as prescribed by industry groups like LEED and ASHRAE. She wants to attract the best tenants by providing the best and safest digital experience possible.

Sound familiar? Now…how does she get started? And how does she get it right?

Where the conversation starts and sometimes stops

This scenario is playing out for busy real estate executives around the world every day. Somewhat paradoxically, technology and the expanding list of innovative IoT manufacturers are making it harder to answer that very first question – where do I begin on revolutionary projects for commercial office buildings?

Once these real estate execs start to look for the best solutions to fit their needs, it seems everyone and their brother has one to offer. Some solutions come from household names, while others come from agile businesses working to bring the next big technology to the industry. They’ve all got the best interface and the easiest to use integration platform. Plus all of their employees know how to solve any problem, no matter how obscure. There seems to be no end to the amount of money or energy that can be saved when these technologies are installed. Great! I’ll take three! Right…

Let’s try to make sense of all of this. As a master systems integrator, I must make sure my team knows about the new latest and greatest technology available, so I attend several conferences per year to see what the market has to offer. When I look out on the composite of these show floors, I see hundreds of access control vendors, hundreds of HVAC control manufacturers, metering solutions from big and small vendors, thousands of smart equipment and device manufacturers and hundreds more lighting control manufacturers. Each of the products and solutions have merit, but there is a lot of cross-over in function and benefit.

Promising platforms

The second, more complex issue, is that integration means different things to different people and thus produces a wide variety of results and solutions. Artificial Intelligence is promising, and providing, in some cases, fantastic results in buildings. Building analytics platforms are also getting better at giving users the information they really need, in a form that helps them act, again aided in some applications by AI. Remote connectivity is another area where innovations are starting to see positive returns, helping to get the building automation industry closer to IT standards of security and management.

I have read a lot of stories lamenting failed IoT projects and how one technology or process could have solved the problem. Some of the solutions sound reasonable and some are a stretch. At the end of the day, we are all human, trying to solve human problems. What’s great and also extremely difficult about right now is we have more tools than ever before to address these problems. The overwhelming abundance of shiny new things is, in some ways, paralyzing us.

The good news is that we don’t have very far to look for the answers. For those busy real estate execs, the IT group has some of the answers. The facilities, or OT group has some of the answers. The OT master systems integrator (OT MSI) has some of the answers. Together, as the IoT team, we will get it mostly right. These three entities are the keystones to making solid, well informed IoT decisions. You likely already have your IT team in place, so this means a first step in your IoT transformation will be to find a good OT MSI. I suggest you look for one who takes the time to understand your business goals and who will work with you along with your IT and OT teams to make all of these decisions together. By working as an IoT team, the agony of making each IoT decision is lessened and the likelihood for success is greater.

Now go forth and make an IoT decision!

Buildings IoT

On the Buildings IoT “One Network” Debate and What’s Been Missing from the Conversation

By Brian Turner | September 14, 2017

The Internet of Things is sparking debate around physical building networks and where best to implement enterprise solutions that touch both IT and OT. At OTI, we have:

The real debate is not around proving there is one right way to implement an IoT strategy for any one network – there are use cases where it’s clear which one of the three options is best. And just because one network architecture works in one implementation doesn’t mean it will make sense for the next one. The question to be answered when considering where IoT solutions should plug into a network is how will the human interaction be impacted when building devices communicate over IP networks rather than RS-485 networks? Once we understand the human side of the equation, we can more accurately define how the network should be architected and how IT and Facilities (also known as operational technology, or OT) should engage with the project.

Programmer holding laptop and checking machine

The ground floor – technicians and controllers. Technicians need continual access building devices in a convenient, efficient way. When controllers are installed on an RS-485 network like BACnet MSTP, technicians have unencumbered access to devices for programming, data sharing, and commissioning of the systems. When these devices include IP connections, they need to be added to a network that resembles an IT network.

In most cases, when a technician today needs to create a network for an IP-connected building device, they bypass IT and install CAT5 or CAT6 cables and cheap, unmanaged switches to go back and forth between controllers. They do this because ease of connectivity is integral to their jobs. They need to do continuous programming and commissioning on building devices and bothering IT to open a port every few days is untenable for both parties. While the CAT5 workaround provides the technician the access they need, it can open up the corporate IT network to unwanted and unnecessary security risks.

The network layer – new solutions, new problems. Many enterprise organizations around the world are working to solve the secure OT network problem, and several already have workable solutions available on the market. In all honesty though, the most effective solutions have mostly moved the burden to IT. This does solve the connectivity and security problems, but it adds a whole host of issues for both teams.

In an existing operation, it is straight forward to get new switches and ports assigned from IT for OT systems. The problem is not in the complexity but in the delivery. In my experience, there are often significant delays in getting integration projects completed because of IT-related hold-ups. This is mostly due to lack of experience with and knowledge of the OT devices, operating systems, personnel and services required to integrate building systems. Over time, the working relationship is bound to improve, though I am not sure it will ever be completely copacetic.

For a new construction project, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that IT isn’t put in place until the building is ready for occupancy. This is typically weeks or months after the building systems are required to be online and communicating. OTI has been involved in several projects where 80-90% of the devices are connected via IP and need to be online well before the IT staff is ready for them. We have managed through the project implementations and have worked with IT groups to make sure we are installing products and cabling they will be prepared to support once they are on site, but this is far from a perfect process so far.

Once these implementation problems are solved, the more difficult maintenance problem shows up.

  1. How will IT and Facilities work together to maintain these networks?
  2. How will IT respond to the service needs of OT?
  3. Will OT be able to control their own destiny or will they be tied to IT for all support and troubleshooting?

I was moderating a session at IBCon in San Diego earlier this year where the “One Building One Network” question was a leading topic. I said something to the effect that OT needs to the own their network and control their destiny. This was taken out of context by some in the audience, so I will take this opportunity to explain the nuance of my comments. There are two problems I have identified that must be addressed as we consider the proper technical backbone for both IT and OT networks.

  1. Technicians and operators responsible to maintain building systems have been successfully handling operations for years without the need for additional resources to manage the network. They have become accustomed to diagnosing problems with RS-485 and Lon networks and have accumulated a lot of expertise in troubleshooting these systems.
  2. The methodology used by the majority of IT departments requiring one port per connected device will need to change in order to cost effectively implement large scale deployments of OT devices.

There is no doubt it makes sense to manage one network infrastructure for all things connected to the IT network. It also makes sense that the IT professionals should manage the network, at all levels. The part where I typically deviate from the rest of the “One Network” pack is when it comes to the applications living on the network. I believe that the OT staff needs to be in control of the section of the network related to the devices and systems defined as Operational Technology. These systems are HVAC controls, lighting, and anything else that could be considered part of the operation of a building or campus.


This means the IT group must provide tools and access to the OT staff to manage and operate the OT portions of the network. This provides some challenges for IT and OT groups given there is so much specialty knowledge required to effectively manage an IT infrastructure. It can be very complex to allow access to certain management tools without creating security risks to other aspects of the IT network.

The new future – why “us against them” is the wrong way to go. This is where new innovations are hard at work to eliminate these problems. The product we use is Optigo Connect by Optigo Networks, which employs passive optical networking (PON) to allow the OT segments of the IT backbone to be installed in a much more cost-effective way than traditional fiber infrastructure. The user experience is also fairly intuitive and can be understood by most OT professionals in the field. It allows the OT group to manage ports, port vLan assignments, and PoE. They can monitor the bandwidth and connection status to make sure devices are behaving properly and sharing data across the network.

The IT group still manages access, routing, security, firewall rules, and other traditional IT responsibilities but the OT staff is empowered to “own” and operate the building systems in a way they are accustomed.

The second part of this IT/OT backbone conversation is about ideology more than technical ability. To explain, let’s get technical for a minute with an example: Consider a floor with 30 VAV controllers serving conditioned air to the offices and open areas on a typical building floor. Manufacturers like Distech Controls and KMC have created VAV controllers that connect using IP cables. When used in combination with the Optigo Connect products, the ethernet switch in the controller supports the Rapid Spanning Tree Protocol (RSTP), as well as a ring monitoring function to automatically switch off redundant paths, and a broadcast storm protection function. This provides some redundancy in the network to keep the devices online, even when the connection is broken in the middle of the floor.

If we were to use the traditional IT paradigm for this representative scenario, we would install 30 CAT5 cables that would all terminate in a single port on a network switch. This adds a lot of cost to the overall implementation and is not likely to be performed at scale.

In the new paradigm, the CAT5 cables would be installed in a daisy chain fashion requiring only 2 CAT5 cables that terminate into 2 network switch ports. The only cost impact is the two ports and the material. The labor is identical. The advantages for network performance, data access, and stability are tremendous.

This is just one example. To evolve with the Internet of Things certainly presents daily challenges for IT, OT and the points at which they need to overlap. Rather than thinking of it as one network against the other, the proper backbone design and operation to meet the demands of the IoT requires new thinking on the parts of both teams and the ability to find solutions that help everyone meet in the middle.