Talking the same language

Karen Fletcher, BACnet, ASHRAE, Optigo Networks, Andy McMillan, Ryan Hughson, Project Haystack
Connectivity is the goal - getting there is the challenge

Karen Fletcher looks at the future of BACnet in the fast-moving world of the internet. Can this familiar protocol keep pace in the new world of smart buildings?

BACnet is a familiar tool for controls engineers. Developed in the US by ASHRAE in the late 80s, it quickly gained traction as a common language for HVAC equipment. It opened up the possibilities of joined-up building services systems and everything that implies, including more effective operation of services as well as more efficient buildings.

Now, BACnet is the backbone for a large proportion of building management systems. Many leading manufacturers that offer built-in controls for their equipment ensure that they are BACnet compliant – to allow for easier integration into the BMS.

There are of course other protocols such as KNX on the market, but many controls engineers have spent their careers with BACnet and have seen the protocol develop over the years. Now, as we move into the era of cloud computing, and the Internet of Things (IoT) the industry is facing the reality of the Internet of Things and asking how it will impact on the familiar world of BACnet.

Those on the inside of the world of building controls know that BACnet is an MSTP-based protocol. It is a simple, but robust protocol that carries messages from field devices (such as sensors) to the controller and back. The internet protocol (IP) is more flexible and faster. Does it leave BACnet looking a bit like the slow-moving country cousin compared to the flashier and more mobile IP?

A recent report from networking specialist Optigo Networks, titled ‘What is the future of BACnet?’, explored this question, with input from global experts in the field of open protocols.

There is no doubt that the IoT is a revolution in terms of how humans interact with buildings, but it is misleading to equate what’s happening in our homes with control of larger commercial buildings. Andy McMillan, president of BACnet International, writes in the Optigo report: “We are at a turning point in the industry but we must define building IoT (BIoT) as it differs from the more familiar consumer IoT. The two are tremendously different and blurring them can cause a great deal of confusion.”

McMillan points out that while the technologies that make up IoT can benefit building automation, the current system architectures and business models do not fit into the world of commercial buildings. “Consumer IoT is promoted by several vendors, each with their own ecosystem. Integrating devices across those vendor-specific islands of automation is difficult.”

Project Haystack 

Project Haystack is an open-source initiative to streamline working with data from the Internet of Things.  This project matters to building services in particular, because Haystack has been focused on applications such as controls, energy, HVAC, lighting and other key environmental systems.  

The aim is to ‘unlock value’ from the huge amount of data being generated by smart devices in buildings (and homes, factories and cities).  

One of the challenges of the data produced is making sense of it all. It’s all about the ‘language’ used by these devices which currently requires a very manual approach to ‘mapping’ the data before it can be analysed. Project Haystack aims to develop naming conventions and taxonomies that will make this process more automated – thereby giving easier access to this valuable data on system performance, energy use etc. The fundamental approach has been to use ‘tagging’. As tags are ‘simple and dynamic’ they are flexible enough to produce standardised models which can be customised for particular projects or equipment.  The ultimate goal is to produce an ASHRAE standard which will provide a ‘dictionary of semantic tags’, providing a common and shared ‘language’ for accessing valuable data. 

An international group has been involved in setting up Project Haystack, but there are some familiar names involved, including Siemens, KNX Association and Tridium. Anyone interested in learning more and taking part can find full information at the second link below

In other words, the current IoT set-up looks a lot like building controls before open protocols were developed and adopted. Even the most dedicated integrator would want to return to that era. “We solved this problem 30 years ago with BACnet for commercial buildings, so we need to incorporate IoT technologies without going backwards in interoperability. That’s BIoT,” adds McMillan.

Of course, there is no reason to assume that everything is business-as-usual for building management systems. The internet has, after all, been the source of major disruption for well-established industries such as retail and music. The door is always open to new entrants who may see building management technology as the next source of revenue.

However, Ryan Hughson, strategic solutions manager at Optigo Networks, believes that there are barriers to entry in the commercial building sector. “There are a few aspects to BACnet that I think will keep it ‘safe’ from this threat. The first is market adoption. It’s a lot harder to replace something that’s so entrenched in our buildings. Building systems typically last at least 20 years, often more. Switching the tech isn’t just updating some firmware, it’s a full-scale swap. There has to be a lot of reasons to change if you’re going to do that.”

Like McMillan, he points to the open nature of BACnet as central to its continued success: “If someone did try to enter the market with a proprietary protocol, it would almost certainly be from outside the industry. Apple’s a great example of a company designing proprietary systems that can still be integrated, but that’s not an easy thing to achieve. BACnet is designed to be open, and that’s a huge point in its favour.”

ASHRAE has been working on a project to find a way to streamline data from the IoT, with the aim of offering a standard approach – helping to ensure BACnet and IP can work smoothly together. (See box for more on Project Haystack)

That said, controls engineers (and their clients) can’t afford to ignore IP. The new era requires an open mind when it comes to adopting new technology. “There will be an increasing shift towards IP programming,” says Hughson. “You should be upgrading your skills continuously, looking at what new trends and influences are on the horizon.” He points to the next generation of controls engineers who are more likely to understand programming and complex coding.

Even though BACnet’s position as a leading open controls protocol seems safe, the increasing connectivity of buildings opens them up to cybersecurity risks. Controls engineers and building managers need to be very aware of the BMS being at risk from cyber-attack – a new problem for a new era. It’s a question of awareness and of involving the client in these discussions, says Hughson: “You need client buy-in on issues like cybersecurity, because they guide the major decisions about how the building is managed. Cybersecurity is a holistic, ongoing process that you need to be cognizant of at every level of the building and at every level of management.”

Building IoT offers a lot of opportunities to advance how buildings perform and has already seen some exciting new products enter the market. Although it seems existing open protocols are here to stay, keeping up with the technology will be crucial. And that applies to the guardians of the protocols as much as those who use them: “The only way BACnet will fail is if they don’t keep up with evolving technology. Someone would have a big challenge trying to upset it, because this isn’t consumer stuff, it’s enterprise engineering.”

Download the Optigo whitepaper from the link below.

* Picture credit Metamorworks

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