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Interesting open systems problem

(This article arose from my sitting on an open source round table on Monday 08 June in Santa Clara, CA at ConnectivityWeek 2009My slides with full speaker notes are available.)

For those who’ve never heard of building automation systems (BAS) and the smart grid, you have my pardon to take a few minutes to go read up.  In essence, BAS controls lighting, heating/cooling, and power.  In some buildings, especially modern (last decade+) construction or recent reconstruction, there are smart(er) devices right down to individual fans or perhaps lights.  In some cases these end-devices have various embedded sensors that report data or have localized smartness.  For example, the heater, the boiler, and all the thermometers share data.  From a building management standpoint, there is a measurable savings.

Where these end-point systems are generally interoperable (they use the term Open Systems), the software that interacts with the devices, providing information and control to humans, is closed and proprietary.  There are also many end-point devices that only interact with a proprietary interface.

The problem of the controlling software is a chance for open source to significantly change the game.  Money and energy savings, just to start.  A way to improve the quality of life for people around the world.  It is even more interesting because of how potentially useful the existing on-site hardware is.  There are many end-point installations that can be controlled with open source-based BAS software.

The power grid is, in essence, a massive network already connecting houses and commercial buildings.  It is also fairly ubiquitous:  “You have an existing network in your house,” someone said to me, “It’s the bus bar in your electric box!”

Kent Hoskin, from Robinson Solutions, told me, “If there is one thing you take away to share, it is this – there is a new computer to program.”  This includes the 4 million+ commercial buildings in the US alone.

One project is Open Lynx, which a lead developer demonstrated before I spoke on the open source round table.  In the demo, we looked at monitoring from an installation in Washington, DC.  In a larger demo on the expo show floor the day after I was there, they were going to show control beyond monitoring.

The round table was enlightening for all of us.  Many people were engaged when I spoke, taking notes, nodding their heads, and asking questions afterward.  It was great to be able to bring a bit of “been there, done that” experience and mentoring.  At the same time, I learned a lot about the history and potential future of BAS, and the 1.5 hour conversation I had afterward with some attendees was one of the best I’ve had in a while.  I’ve made some good contacts and am looking at ways that I can help get together other like minded people, which is one reason for this article.

A smarter local grid gives an owner a way to smooth out some of the costs.  For example, a company might have three buildings at a large site, each on a separate connection to the power utility.  One of the buildings might have an unusual spike of power draw on Sunday mornings that sets the rate for the week, while another building has an unusually low power draw at the same time.  A smart system could smooth out, drawing power from one building to the other to compensate, and keep the rate set lower to a level closer to the actual power used throughout the week.  For various reasons, the disconnected systems situation is more common than not.

In further research during my travels home, I learned a bit more about where the mentality of this industry is.  For example, they have ISO standard networking protocols (BACnet) and there some a rejection, scoffing, or eschewing of IP as a protocol.  In one article, Sustainable Design of Building Automation Systems, the author makes a classic case where the best answer is “open source and open standards”, yet doesn’t actually draw that conclusion:

In conclusion, a sustainable BAS is achievable with proper initial design considerations that include the use of open protocols, standardized network management tools and open access to product and training.

It reminded me of the way IT uses TCO as a way to calculate costs and savings when considering open source and open standards, but stops short of adopting the full open source methodology.  “Oh, let me take these open standards as given to me and swallow them without ever thinking I can affect the future here.”  I was happy that at least the people who attended the round table got a dose of how and why participation in open source is key to getting maximum potential and exponential value.

(Post updated to fix name and URL of Robinson Solutions.)