There are several advantages to maintaining building-automation-system data in cloud-based systems, but ask yourself some questions first.
By Kevin Callahan and Nikhil Deulkar, Alerton
Many aspects of the high-tech industry are discussed in quasi-religious or mystical terms. Consider the tech journalist who described massive data centers as the “physical embodiment of the Internet,” as if the Internet was some kind of spiritual entity instead of a bunch of sophisticated equipment. The same thing is happening with offsite computing, where the new-age-sounding term “the cloud” is used to describe other people’s computers–albeit numerous very powerful computers.
To learn more about cloud-based building-automation systems, listen to our podcast interview with Alerton’s Kevin Callahan.
The downside of such terms is that the hype can obscure the very real benefits offered by the technologies. In the case of cloud computing, relying on massive computing power managed by others can provide tangible advantages when it comes to data-intensive applications such as building-automation systems (BAS).
The cloud in short
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST, Gaithersburg, MD) describes cloud computing as “a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources, e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services, that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service-provider interaction.”
In other words, rather than relying on the computing power and memory of your organization’s own computers—whether desktop machines or on-site servers—you access remote computers through the internet to accomplish business needs.
Before describing the specific benefits the cloud provides for BAS, it is helpful to summarize the cloud’s broad benefits. These include:
• Bulk computing power: The most obvious benefit of the cloud is the ability to store reams of data without having to invest in your own massive data center. As business functions, ranging from operations to marketing to facility management, generate ever more data to be analyzed, the cloud provides a place to store and process that data. Even so, a more important benefit of the cloud for BAS than bulk storage and computing power, is the flexibility and adaptability the cloud provides building owners and operators.
• Right sizing: A key advantage of having access to monstrous amounts of computer storage and processing is the ability to upscale (or downscale) your computing power almost as your needs change. This eliminates the need to forecast your computing needs months or a year in advance, and lowers your need to invest in costly on-site servers and other computing infrastructure. In short, the cloud helps you reduce capital expenditures for on-premise computing, as well as the operating expense of maintaining those computers.
What does that look like in practical terms? Say you’re the facility-operations manager for a university. Over time, your BAS data storage needs will likely increase as new buildings are added or upgraded, but for months or years at a time, your data demands might taper or even decline somewhat as buildings are closed for refurbishment or demolition. With a subscription from a cloud-service provider, you pay for just the right amount of computing power and can adjust very quickly. It is the just-in-time inventory model applied to computers.
• Simple, remote maintenance. As with many out-sourced services, a benefit of cloud computing is transferring certain headaches to someone else who can likely do the work better and cheaper. With the cloud, you outsource the expense and hassles of ensuring reliable computer up-time, rather than needing to field your own army of IT professionals.
• Enhanced safety. Naturally you might wonder how safe your data are in the cloud compared with on-site computing. Here, too, the cloud performs very well. Because data are replicated and sliced over multiple backup servers located in multiple sites/regions, there is no single point of failure in the cloud, as there is when a desktop hard drive fails. Your data are not only protected against a single hardware failure, they are also protected against natural disasters or connectivity issues that could affect a particular site/region.
The previously outlined computing power, flexibility, and outsourcing benefits apply to many computing needs, but what specifically can the cloud do for BAS?
An important BAS-enabled function that more building owners are looking to the cloud for is automated, continuous building commissioning. It takes a substantial amount of computing power and data storage to run the performance algorithms needed for continuous commissioning. Operating in the cloud, your BAS can frequently evaluate if building systems, such as HVAC and lighting, are still performing as well as they did when they were installed and commissioned. For example, if a chiller begins to operate out of spec, a facility manager can immediately see that performance reduction and take corrective action.
The cloud also provides the power for more sophisticated fault detection, diagnostics, and analytics. In essence, it expands the potential for facility operators to use their BAS to optimize building systems, saving time and money on building-operations maintenance.
We also envision within the next three to five years that artificial intelligence will enable BAS to become more fully automated. While today’s BAS will tell you when something is wrong with a building system, a human has to notice the BAS alarm and take action—turning off a failing unit, adjusting a system, calling a service tech to fix the problem. Much of that work will eventually be automated. With the computing power provided by the cloud, and appropriately programmed systems, the BAS will be able to take action without human intervention. For example, if a chiller goes out of spec, the BAS could adjust the set points to ensure continued comfort for the building occupants and issue a service request.
Factors to consider
Whether the cloud is appropriate for your organization’s BAS at this time depends on how you answer a few key questions:
• What will you migrate? Will you move your entire BAS to the cloud, including all data and the automation software, or just a subset of these? The answer to this will help inform the rest of the considerations in this list.
• What’s your break-even point? As the saying goes, “you get what you pay for.” With the cloud, more reliable up-time and greater online security usually means a higher price, so it is important to find a point that balances your BAS computing needs and budget.
• How will you manage service disruptions? While cloud-computing service providers pride themselves on near-perfect up time, no system is 100% failure proof. In addition to the cloud, itself, for BAS success it’s essential to ensure the integrity of your facility’s connection to the cloud and what the implications are if you lose connectivity. For example, if your HVAC and lighting schedule interfaces are cloud-based, will your building continue to operate on its own until the connection is restored? The importance of such continuity will largely depend on your type of facility. Temporary loss of lighting scheduling in a grade-school classroom or office would be troublesome, but not life threatening, while disruption of air pressure balancing in a hospital operating room could be a matter of life and death.
Regardless of whether it is yet timely for your organization to migrate its BAS to the cloud, it is important to actively consider the implications and plan for an eventual migration. In the same way the well-known software companies are moving their word processing, spreadsheet, and other office tools to subscription-based services in the cloud, rather than offering them as software licensed to every computer in an office, BAS developers will likely follow suit.
Kevin Callahan is a product owner and evangelist for Alerton, a Honeywell business, Lynnwood, WA. He has 40 years of experience in the building-control technologies field. Contact him at email@example.com. Nikhil Deulkar is a product manager for Alerton, focusing on the Internet of Things. His nearly 20 years of experience includes driving software, hardware, and silicon products and solutions for PCs; data centers; supercomputing; RFID and building-automation systems. Contact him at Nikhil.Deulkar@honeywell.com.