Buildings IoT

Where to Find Us at Realcomm IBCon 2018

By Blog Admin | May 22, 2018


We’re counting down the days until we converge on Las Vegas for another exciting and jam-packed Realcomm IBCon. This year is especially exciting for us because it marks the first time OTI is exhibiting. We’re a new company with a big history and an exciting future, so we can’t wait to show you some of what we’ve been working on. We hope you won’t be able to miss us, because we’ll be right next to registration and badge pick-up, at Booth 153.

As in past years, Brian Turner will speak on several panels throughout the show, starting with the increasingly popular PreCon Smart Building Integrators Summit. “Dealing with a Changing Industry — Defining the Master Systems Integrator” takes place June 5 from 3:45-4:15 in Mont Royal 1. We expect this to be the continuation of a long-running effort to discuss what a master systems integrator is and does in this changing world of IoT buildings. We hope you’ll contribute to the conversation as well.

During the main conference be sure to sit in Nolita 2 on June 6 from 2:15-3:15 for “Developing, Implementing and Maintaining a Building Network Strategy.” This one is straight out of our “IT, OT and business convergence” theme we’ve been exploring in different ways since our inception. It’s also something we work with every day, so we expect this to be a very informative discussion.

We’ll also be at the case study Showcase early on Thursday morning, showing off a GGP peak demand response program and an Infomart fully redundant, smart network control system.

Some other sessions we’re putting on our show calendar:

“The Smart Building Technology Skills Gap”

“Location Services”

“Connected Multi-Dwelling Units and IoT”

“Understanding the complex relationship between tenant and landlord”

“Smart Buildings and Data Analytics — has reality lived up to the hype?”

See you in two weeks!


Buildings IoT

Convergence is here, so what does that mean for IT and OT teams?

By Brian Turner | May 3, 2018


In the interview with OTI’s new VP of Information Technology, we outlined the dynamic conversation surrounding OT networks and IT collaboration in a building project. That same week, I sat on a panel session at Niagara Summit called “The Value of OT Networks.” It quickly turned into the “IT vs. OT” debate we outlined in that blog article. In my view, we’re well past that. We’re no longer looking at OT devices just sitting on the IT network, or two completely separate networks. It’s now a truly converged IoT network where each team needs to understand and work together on a bigger picture.

For buildings and OT, convergence has accelerated as the price of enabling technologies has decreased. Controllers the size of your hand now come with IP connectivity and they’re purpose-built for building automation. Fiber has advanced so that it’s now cost-competitive with Cat5 cabling and much more scalable. On the information technology side, IT teams are faced with larger, more connected networks that offer access holes to malicious parties at every turn.

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

When OT comes to the table for a building network strategy session, we’re talking to a room full of IT people about network and fiber like it’s new. IT has been doing this for a long time. The only thing that’s new is the application. In order to better work together, OT needs to help IT know what the device is, what network ports it is listening to and how often, how much bandwidth it needs and most importantly, which device starts the conversation.

When a Switch is Not Just a Switch

While OT is leveling-up on the technology side, IT needs to reframe the way it thinks about building devices.

“To IT, it’s just a light switch,” says Rich Miller, VP of Information Technology at OTI. “It doesn’t need very much attention. Instead, IT is focused on making sure all users have email access or that the personal devices people bring onto the office network are not posing threats to overall security.”

But as convergence deepens, building devices are no longer “just a light switch.” They’re WiFi enabled, IP connected, power over ethernet, data sharing smart devices that are part of a larger effort to improve operations, maximize profitability and keep people comfortable. The way they’re so flexible and programmable for multiple building applications is by not being inherently secure.

Enterprise case study on truly converged IoT Network for GGP mall properties

“The crucial point that both OT and IT teams need to understand,” Miller says, “is that if you don’t secure every one of these OT building devices, it could be the jump-off point that ends up getting a whole office or corporate enterprise hacked. It is everyone’s mutual responsibility to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

How to Make Convergence Work Better for Everyone

Traditionally, IT has seen facilities as outside their network purview and OT has seen information technology teams as roadblocks to on-time and in-budget project delivery. Convergence has arrived and the internet of things is only going to continue intertwining devices, teams and networks. If everyone isn’t working together, networks will be left with security holes, machine learning will be halted before it’s able to show real value and entire industries will be left behind. Here’s how both IT and OT groups can better work together.

1.) Stop dreading the conversation

There’s a huge misconception that working with IT can push an OT project behind by three to six months.

“The mentality in the buildings industry has been ‘we don’t want to deal with IT, they’re a road block, we just want to do our own thing,’” explains Clint Bradford, head of operations at OTI.

The truth is, a clear path can be agreed upon in one to two meetings. Calling IT at the last minute saying “I need 100 ports open for my VLAN” is never a successful strategy. Neither is working around IT and placing a router anywhere that OT teams need access to a platform front-end. The first path is unfair and the second is not secure.

Data center case study on working with IT for 352 pieces of equipment

2.) Talk early and at key project points

“It always comes down to the relationship,” Miller says. “The more someone trusts you and the work you do, the more they’re willing to work with you to accomplish a mutual goal.”

Convergence means that IT is part of the OT network, OT is part of the IT network and everything works together for the sake of the IoT.  With this in mind, it only makes sense to have both IT and OT start working together early in the project process.

OTI is going all-in on IT/OT collaboration

3.) Outline exactly what is needed

Building controllers and network devices have advanced so much in the past few years that it’s hard for even industry veterans to keep up. Imagine how out-of-the-loop IT is. There are a few specific reasons that IT needs to be involved in OT network integrations and conversations should clearly outline these needs. First, discuss bandwidth needed for each device on the network. Then explain the important features and functions of the system and latency/uptime required. Finally, determine port assignments, data transfer and storage methodologies.

Convergence means that it’s not just OT devices sitting on an IT network. It’s truly an IoT network where all applications have to share the relevant data that is important to each one of the applications. With everyone on board, projects will go smoother, networks will be more secure and people will be more successful.

Buildings IoT

5 Questions with Richard Miller, OTI’s New Vice President of Information Technology

By Natalie Patton | April 25, 2018

Richard-Miller-Ontai network-small

The conversation around information technology and operational technology has changed rapidly in just a few short years. First it was “IT vs. OT” as if the two disciplines were involved in a boxing match over control of networks and processes. Then it was more kumbaya and free love with the “One Network” sentiment which begged the question can’t we all just get along? Finally, I remember just last year sitting in a session at Realcomm | IBCon called “IT/OT Closing the Gap” where OTI’s president Brian Turner tried to strike a more nuanced tone as moderator between representatives from manufacturers, systems integrators and property management firms.

Things move quickly these days and what we believed was true yesterday could be upended by a new situation we’re presented with today. This is as true in commercial buildings as any other industry. The biggest take away from this shape-shifting IT, OT, IoT debate is that all levels of building construction, management and maintenance are experiencing changes in the ways they work and collaborate. Call it convergence, a takeover, a battle royal or a convivial camp fire but just don’t pretend it’s not happening. For OTI’s part, with the acquisition of an IT managed services firm and its six employees, we’re embracing the change, leaning into it with our whole business in order to build more robust, total building solutions.

To that end, meet Richard Miller, the head of the IT managed services firm formerly known as Ontai, now VP of Information Technology at OTI. We asked him five questions to get his take on how IT and OT can better work together, what “managed services” really means, and the projects he’s most excited to work on at OTI.

Rich, welcome to OTI! From where you sit in the IT world, what has been your experience of IT/OT collaboration? How has this changed and where do you see it heading now?

I compare the relationship between IT/OT to the experiences we all faced during the early stages of VOIP. There were two different worlds that were on a collision course and when that happened, the fallout that ensued had some people reeling. Those who embraced it were very successful.  We had “phone guys” struggling to learn enough networking to make their new breed of products communicate. Then we had “IT guys” struggling to learn the concepts and proprietary terminology of traditional phone systems.  There is a vast difference between making something work and doing it both correctly and securely. In recent years, OT systems and facilities in general can become much smarter and more sophisticated. Building tools to enable that sophistication is the real purpose and goal behind OTI and the acquisition of ONTAI.

Talk about the need to break down barriers – how can both IT and OT become more interested in each other’s roles and responsibilities? And why should they?

I’m not so sure it’s all about breaking down barriers to be honest, I think it’s more about establishing a level of trust between the two groups and leveraging that trust to help both sides to better understand of the needs and goals of the other.

Thinking about OTI now having an IT department, how will the project process change? What will OTI projects look like moving forward?

Ultimately our goal is to provide the most secure and right-sized solution, on time and on budget. Of course there are unforeseen circumstances that come up with every project, but on the whole this is what we’re working toward. As a contractor to OTI, our team has been side-by-side with OTI to overcoming the issues that OT integrators face in gaining adoption, designing and implementing full-fledged solutions for building control systems for the last six years. As a managed service provider on our own, we were also implementing secure and robust solutions for customers in the small- to medium-business space. Those worlds have similarities and it’s in that parallel space we find the pathway to convergence in our two businesses and ultimately in the OT/IT building networks.

Can you define managed services for us? Are IT managed services different than OT managed services? Will OTI be offering both now?

The definition of managed services or of being a “managed services provider” is “one that provide proactive delivery of their service, as opposed to reactive services.” In that sense, while the end points specific to IT and OT may be different, the methodology and policies that make up a managed services offering are very much the same. Moving forward, yes, OTI will provide managed services for both IT and OT endpoints.

Broadly speaking, what projects either already underway or on the horizon are you most looking forward to? 

The projects that most inspire me are those where we are retrofitting a building that was built well before OT or even IT was a concept. We’re coming in and transforming those old, inefficient systems to turn the whole thing into a smart building.  We have a number of those in progress and coming soon so it’s been great from the beginning.

Keep up with OTI projects, news and events – subscribe to our blog and sign up for our newsletter. You can also connect with OTI and Rich on LinkedIn, and follow us on Twitter.

*Network connections photo by Claus Rebler on Flickr.

Buildings IoT

Utility Rates for Life of Lease vs. Tenant Billing Software for Charges Based on Real Consumption

By Natalie Patton | April 19, 2018

An exploration of pros and cons for property managers

Property owners with large portfolios are faced with two tough choices when it comes to utility billing – establish a set rate for utilities at the outset of a lease agreement or bill by real consumption on an agreed-upon cycle. Each option has its pros and cons for property owners of all kinds from CBRE and JLL to GGP, Macerich and Westfield. Here we’ll offer details on what to consider as you explore the best way to bill your tenants for utility consumption from our experience working with multi-tenant, mixed use buildings across the country.

utility bills-featured

Option 1: Establish a set rate at the outset of a lease agreement

Prior to a glut of tenant billing software options entering the buildings market, property managers’ only choice for utility cost sharing was to roll up their sleeves and do some math. When a new tenant signed on, they’d take the total utility bill for the whole property, consider a historical reference of previous tenants with comparable space utilization needs or business operations, take the square footage of that tenant space and divide it by the total property square footage to come up with a diligent though approximate number.

While this is laborious and ultimately a “best guess” situation, just because there are other options available now doesn’t automatically make those new options better. So let’s set aside the historical precedent and any new-is-better ideologies to do some real side-by-side comparing. First, delving into Option 1: Establish a set rate at the outset of a lease agreement.

Pro Forecasting. It’s true that real energy consumption fluctuates so having a set tenant utility bill for each month or year is good for budgeting purposes.

Con – Squaring up the books. Although you have an agreed upon utility cost for the tenant, you’re still required to track the real utility usage of each tenant space. You’ll need to pay the tenants back for any overages charged throughout the year.

Pro – If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Sometimes it’s easier and more cost-effective to stick with what’s working now. If your tenants aren’t asking for a different utility billing system then maybe the way you’re doing things doesn’t need to be reexamined.

Con – Getting left behind. We’ve seen software disrupt countless industries. Especially in the retail space, competition is fierce and tenants are getting used to incentives to keep or sign long-term leases. Small differentiation could make a big difference for anchor tenants or new prospects.


Option 2: Use tenant billing software to charge based on real utility consumption

To reiterate, new doesn’t necessarily mean better. There is a fair bit of risk associated with changing your existing workflow and tenant lease agreements are fragile enough as it is. But property managers are finding value in new software products that plug into their existing building management systems so it’s worth taking a thoughtful look at the options available and what situations they might be used for. Here’s our pro/con list for Option 2: Use tenant billing software to charge based on real utility consumption.

Pro The numbers are real. As we already established, it’s reasonable to assume that energy consumption will fluctuate in tenant spaces. Maybe not by a lot, but then again maybe significantly. You have to track the information retroactively to square up any discrepancies at the end of each calendar year, so why not do it in real time?

Con – The numbers are real. The difficulties that accompany change can’t be understated. There is a real fear that charging based on real consumption will tighten belts for landlords in situations where every penny counts. And while this is a valid conversation to have, it should be weighed carefully with the following entry in the “pro” column…

Pro – Transparency. Tenants are asking for this, so by offering tenant billing based on real consumption at the outset of a lease agreement, your credibility as a landlord goes way up. Everyone is weary of a black box these days because software has opened up so many avenues for transparency. Your tenants are consumers too and they know that big data has made it possible to track a lot of information in near-real time.

Con – So. Many. Options. The software game is jam-packed with competition in any industry and tenant billing applications are no different. Entrepreneurs are seeking to disrupt anything they can get their hands on so it’s possible that you could settle on a tenant billing software from a hot new start-up that runs out of funding and stops working for you in a few short years. It’s hard to know which system will be around for the long haul even though everyone runs around promising the moon. As we mentioned in the previous section, it’s no small task to change the way your property management business operates or the details of what’s in a long-term lease agreement.


One way to help sort all this out is to contact your systems integrator. They’re familiar with your existing system and if they’re good, they should be aware of the different products on the market. Your MSI can guide you through the pros and cons outlined here with an eye toward what will work with the system they’ve helped you build. For what it’s worth, OTI is having a lot of success with a tried-and-true tenant billing software application for Niagara Systems called TenantEye. We’ve been using it since it was part of a different brand and now we’re implementing the newly released Niagara 4 version. We could tell you more about why we like it, but that’s a story for a different day. You have enough to chew on.

Buildings IoT

The First Two Things You Should Know Before Starting a BAS Project in NYC

By Matt White | March 29, 2018


For all of its reputation and glamour, New York City may be best defined by its skyline. The buildings that fill in the grid like a 5,000-piece puzzle are icons even if you don’t know their names or what the people inside of them are doing. And remarkably, on the 304-square-mile island there are always more buildings working their way up toward the horizon line, like these beauties expected to be complete by 2021.

With that backdrop, NYC is an incredible place to embark on a building automation or controls project. What presents the most opportunity for building owners, contractors and tenants in the city are the older buildings that don’t get as much attention. About half of all commercial buildings in the United States were constructed before 1980. To drill down into the age of New York City’s buildings alone, turn to this incredible technicolor map. It puts NYC in line with the national numbers and it’s fun to zoom in and see the surprising bursts of hot pink noting a building here and there that is nearly 200 years old.

That large inventory of rather old buildings is where building automation and energy management projects can thrive. A lot has changed in building and energy management just in the past 10 years, let alone the last three to five decades. New York City happens to be an incredible place to start improving that existing stock of old buildings that no longer operate like they should.

These are the first two things you should know before you grab that bull by the horns and get to work on a building automation project in the city.

1.) Find the right partners

The right partner can not only keep the job moving, they can present opportunities you didn’t even know about. Enter NYSERDA, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. They’re tasked with promoting energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources across the state. Don’t worry, this isn’t a fad group that just cropped up and may be out of money by the time you get around to opening their web page. NYSERDA has been governed by a 13-member board providing objective information and analysis, technical expertise and support across the buildings industry since 1975. They have a long list of programs and services for customers and vendors. OTI was recently certified for their Real Time Energy Management (RTEM) Program, so we can bring up to 30% in project discounts by using this program.

2.) Consider the cloud

Many building owners may have a nagging feeling that their building systems are outdated or not performing like they could be if they were utilizing more advanced technology. But those same building owners are likely not willing or able to authorize the gutting of an entire system based on a hunch. So contractors and integrators would be wise to start small. Focus on one system or desired outcome and prioritize. Once you get beyond the basics of repairing and replacing parts that are clearly malfunctioning, cloud-based monitoring can open valuable windows into the operation of the system. These systems – which typically offer real-time views and various analytics – can show you what devices are causing problems, so you can more easily make the case for work to be done.

*Skyline photo by Matheu Slotero on Flickr

Buildings IoT

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

By Natalie Patton | 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 Patton | 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.