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

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. She is experienced at operating efficient class A properties, often improving the bottom line and increasing revenue for the buildings in her portfolio. It’s clear to her that IoT is a buzz word. In her personal life, she’s very tech-savvy, accustomed to accessing everything within a few touches on a screen. Everything, that is, except for the operational technology assets in her buildings.

At home, she can let a visitor in while sitting at her favorite coffee shop. She can  watch them enter and exit via IP-connected cameras. Why she doesn’t have this technology available in all her buildings? Her company has invested millions of dollars, under her leadership. Something isn’t right.

This exec wants her office buildings to be the ideal location for all tenants. She wants to provide  the latest technology for security, parking, elevators, guest access, Wi-Fi, heating, AC and lighting. The latest in comfort and healthy environments as prescribed by industry groups like LEED and ASHRAE are crucial too.

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

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, so a first step will be to find a good OT MSI. Look for one who takes the time to understand your business goals and who will work with your IT and OT teams to make decisions together. By working as an IoT team, the agony of each IoT decision reduces while the likelihood for success improves.

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

Buildings IoT and its broad counterpart 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 Right Questions

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 on an RS-485 network like BACnet MSTP, technicians have unencumbered access for programming, data sharing, and commissioning. When these devices include IP connections, they need 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 to integration projects 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.

The problem is exacerbated in new constructions because IT isn’t there until the building is occupied. This can be weeks or months after the building systems need to be online. 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.

Maintenance Difficulties

  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 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 so I will take this opportunity to explain the nuance.

Two problems must be addressed as we consider the proper technical backbone for both IT and OT networks:

  1. Technicians and operators maintaining building systems have been handling operations for years without additional resources. They have become accustomed to diagnosing problems with RS-485 and Lon networks. They’ve accumulated a lot of expertise in troubleshooting these systems.
  2. The IT requirement of one port per connected device. This 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 deviate from the “One Network” pack is applications on the network.

I believe OT staff needs to be in control of network related to devices and systems defined as Operational Technology. These systems are HVAC controls, lighting – anything considered part of the operation of a building or campus.


This means IT must provide tools and access to OT staff. It can be very complex to grant access to certain management tools without creating security risks on 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. 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.

It/OT Backbone part 2

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 offices and open areas on a typical floor. Manufacturers like Distech Controls and KMC have created VAV controllers that connect using IP cables.

When used in combination with the Optigo Connect, the ethernet switch 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 creates some redundancy if a connection is broken in the middle of the floor.

New vs. Traditional

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

In the new paradigm, CAT5 cables are installed in a daisy chain requiring only 2 cables that terminate into 2 network switches. 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 IoT presents daily challenges for IT, OT and the points at which they overlap. Rather than thinking of it as one network against the other, the IoT requires new thinking on the parts of both teams. The ability to find solutions that help everyone meet in the middle.