What is IT’s Role in the Smart Building?

What is IT's Role in the Smart Building?

The modern automobile engine is not that much different from those built 75 years ago. However, it performs significantly better; it gets much better fuel economy and is infinitely more reliable. Why? The basic engine has not changed, but the systems that control and manage it have changed dramatically. Gone are mechanical fuel pumps, points, condensers, distributor caps, carburetors, etc…. Those have all been replaced with electronic and computer-controlled management systems that precisely control fuel and ignition to deliver the reliability and performance gains we now expect in our vehicles.

Modern buildings are undergoing a very similar transition. Yes, there are still a myriad of mechanical systems that deliver the air, water, etc…, but those systems are being upgraded with electronic and computer-controlled management systems just like we’ve seen in modern vehicles. As a result, we are seeing efficiencies and performance like never before. Just as the shade tree mechanic has largely disappeared and been replaced by the technician with a diagnostic computer, the task of managing these smart building systems is getting more complex and will require a new approach to management, one that involves IT from the very beginning.

So, what is/will be IT’s role when it comes to managing and integrating smart building systems? Is IT a consultant? Is IT a service provider? Is IT a partner? Should IT be fully responsible for managing modern, complex building systems? For those who don’t work in IT, IT can have a lot of different meanings, dependent on what their interaction with IT is:

IT is (generally):

  • CyberSecurity
  • The Help Desk
  • Desktop Support
  • Email
  • The Network
  • Data Center Operations
  • Compliance
  • Software
  • File Storage
  • Firewalls
  • Virtualization
  • Cloud Management
  • Databases
  • Voice and Communications Systems
  • Application Development
  • Websites and eCommerce
  • Product Management
  • Product Ownership
  • Enterprise and Solution Architecture

IT is a very broad term, and the IT department is responsible for all of these things and more. If your only interaction with IT is the Help Desk, you probably don’t think about just how vast and varied the responsibilities of IT can be. So what does IT have to do with smart buildings? I mean, the integrator for ‘xyz system’ just needs to get to the internet and the Facilities team can get a DSL line installed for that… right? Not so fast. This is where IT can be a valuable partner.

When the auto manufacturers began the transition from mechanical control systems to electronic-controlled systems, they brought in experts to help. They brought in the techies–the guys with the pocket protectors and a scientific calculator. Most of these guys knew nothing about cars, but they knew about electronic control systems. The car guys taught the tech guys about cars, the tech guys taught the car guys about precision controls. That is where we are today. Instead of a calculator, the IT guys bring their laptops. The operational technology (OT) guys need to work with these technology experts and figure out how to leverage their expertise.

IT knows how to get things connected safely and securely. They have been doing it for years. They likely have network availability near where it is needed for ‘xyz system’ and the ability to get it connected without the need for a new circuit. Money saved on both the low voltage run and the circuit. They probably have the resources to protect ‘xyz system’ from the bad guys trying to do your business harm. That could save you both time and money, as well as your reputation. The bad guys love to find systems installed by people who do not put security as a priority. Default usernames and passwords litter building automation systems (to be fair, all kinds of systems) across the globe. IT has been tasked with security as a priority for years. Multiply this one control system times the number of systems in a modern smart building. A single DSL circuit request and a few low voltage runs can easily become 15 monthly invoices and hundreds of cable runs. That is a lot of waste and gets expensive very quickly.

IT can help, but first, IT has to embrace the idea that these devices are worthy of a place on their network. For years, IT staff has rejected the idea that these systems could be tenants on their network. After all, “…our network is an enterprise IT network. We can’t have these HVAC or lighting devices, etc… on it. They can’t be secured, they can’t be patched and they can’t be managed. You cannot connect THAT to my network!”Honestly, there has historically been some validity to those remarks. They weren’t allowed on the “corporate” network, so BAS manufacturers created their own protocols (BACnet) and built devices that wouldn’t even work on the ‘IT network’. But times have changed. IT has to embrace these things because the convergence of IT, OT, and the Internet of Things (IoT) is the new reality. People are buying solutions and putting them on the corporate network whether IT allows it or not. Often, IT is not even aware this equipment is connected to their systems. This creates unnecessary risk for everyone.

The automobile set an example that older technologies, properly managed with precision, can deliver efficient, reliable performance. This is now happening in the modern smart office building. OT manufacturers have to deliver systems that can be good citizens on corporate networks. Machines that have never been connected will have to be designed to have patch schedules and be able to be secured just like any other endpoint that IT manages. For legacy systems that cannot make the transition, there are solutions available today that connect yet isolate these devices and allow for the access and management that is needed. IT has to make a decision that these devices deserve a place of respect and are critical to operating the modern smart building. All vested parties in the organization must come together and work out their differences to make this work. It is coming. It is here. We have to manage it.

This is all the 'why'. In part two, we will explore the 'how'.

Are you ready to update your aging facility with technology? Start the conversation.

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