In the computer and telecommunications industries, the Internet has been playing the role of a virtual Rosetta Stone for almost 10 years, enabling machines of different ages, architectures and operating systems to communicate and interact with each other. Yet, during that same time, the building controls industries were being left behind. Metering, monitoring and the myriad technologies that comprise building infrastructures remained discrete, isolated elements that had no means of communicating with each other or with all the enterprise applications that were evolving around the Internet revolution.
Now change is in the air. Internet technologies are poised to revolutionize the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry by enabling HVAC components to communicate not only with each other but with other building systems controls as well, and even with the enterprise business systems that have become essential to running large corporations, nonprofits and agencies.
Central to this trend is the Open Building Information eXchange (oBIX), an industry-wide initiative among building systems vendors to define standard Web services for monitoring and controlling a building’s mechanical and electrical systems, including HVAC elements spread throughout a building or even throughout multiple facilities. The oBIX standard is due to be published by the end of the year, and it is sure to have a profound impact on the design of all future HVAC equipment.
The purpose of oBIX is to define a standard for Web services that enable communications between a building’s mechanical and electrical systems and enterprise applications, thus enabling facilities operations to be managed like any other element in today’s knowledge-based businesses.
oBIX will enable communication between all building controls and a cluster ofs seemingly unrelated systems: environmental monitoring, financial applications, human resource systems, supply chain management and even customer relationship management (CRM) software. It promises to accelerate the evolution of HVAC from the isolated mechanical systems of the past into fully interactive nodes on “smart building” networks that also control elevators, access and security, lighting, life and safety systems, A/V equipment deployment and many other technologies, while simultaneously monitoring a building’s environmental sensors, electrical panels and utility meters.
The upshot is that heating and air conditioning elements can now be designed to respond to any other source of information about a building’s physical space that can be monitored or circulated via the network.
High-tech control systems are by no means new to the HVAC industry. The popular LONMARK and BACnet protocols, for example, have been used since the early 1990s to provide HVAC systems with digital control mechanisms. But neither was designed to work — or even to interface — with the Internet’s TCP/IP technology, meaning that HVAC, like many other building infrastructure elements, remained a discrete, isolated system controlled by proprietary technologies that required their own wiring, monitoring and maintenance.
The oBIX standard is being developed around Extensible Markup Language (XML), which is itself an evolving standard for communicating complex data across the Internet. Just as Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) is the preferred tool for organizing text and images on Web pages, XML is the preferred tool for mining and monitoring Web-based data.
The purpose of oBIX is not necessarily to replace existing LONMARK or BACnet-based installations or other legacy or proprietary HVAC systems. An early priority of the oBIX standards group has been to work closely with LONMARK and BACnet users so that systems based on those protocols will be able to use oBIX to communicate with other Internet-linked systems. Though future control applications for HVAC will no doubt be developed using XML and Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), existing proprietary systems are likely to remain the applications of choice for gathering rich data from building control systems. For the foreseeable future, the primary role of the oBIX standard will be simply to enable the sending and receiving of that data across networks.
The whole point is to enable each system within a building to provide relevant data to any other system on the network. Thus, for example, a scheduling system that tracks when employees are taking vacations or holidays can be used to automatically schedule HVAC (as well as lighting, security and other environmental systems) to make efficient adjustments based on when an office or conference room will and will not be in use. And any of the building’s systems can just as easily be tied to other operations, for example the scheduling of A/V equipment or demand for phone or computer connectivity.
Just as noteworthy is the fact that the usefulness of these integrated systems appreciates considerably when energy-usage data is blended with other data, then fed directly into enterprise accounting software, where it can be broken out by tenant, floor or operations center — or even by room — when analyzing costs and unit profitability.
Clearly, integrating diverse data at this level and to this degree of complexity will fall to companies’ information technology (IT) departments. Understandably, for reasons of cost, efficiency and staff productivity, IT managers are going to insist that building systems controls be built to accommodate existing Web standards. After all, enterprise systems from the likes of EDS, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP have already been standardized on Web technologies. oBIX is the next logical step to bring building system controls into the Internet family.
Why is this important? Because corporations now appreciate that the efficient operation of facilities accrues directly to their bottom lines. Yet, at the corporate level, there is currently no easy way for IT departments to integrate their growing enterprise systems with the systems that run, manage and monitor their buildings and facilities. The oBIX group insists that “this has to be done on the IT department’s terms, using their language, rules, standards and
tools … oBIX is an initiative to use these technologies for building systems, and the IT folks will be very happy about this.”
The effort to develop the oBIX standard was initiated in April 2003 by the Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA), an industry group that promotes advanced technologies for the automation of homes and buildings in North America. A year later, CABA transferred oversight of the effort to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), a not-for-profit international consortium that develops e-business standards.
“Currently, there is no easy way for IT departments to integrate their enterprise systems with those that run their buildings,” said Ron Zimmer, CABA’s president and chief executive. “Yet facilities represent the largest physical asset most companies have. Using Web services to enhance the effectiveness of building control systems promises to have an enormous impact on an organization’s bottom line.”
The HVAC industry will get a chance to familiarize itself with oBIX on Feb. 9, 2005, when CABA cosponsors a symposium as part of what is billed as the world’s largest HVAC event, the AHR Expo at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. In announcing its 2005 XML Symposium, CABA said its intention was to “prepare the HVAC industry for IT convergence.”
“In a non-technical, high-level manner, the 2005 XML Symposium will communicate to the HVAC community the significant role XML and Web services continue to play in the industry,” CABA’s announcement stated. “As the industry witnesses further evidence of IT convergence, these technologies have become the most vital enabling technology for the future of integrated and intelligent buildings. XML and Web Services technologies are primarily utilized in the IT industry as well as many other industry groups that desire to leverage the Internet as a connectivity and automation vehicle.”
Zimmer added: “IT convergence is truly upon us. And to remain competitive in the HVAC market, it is imperative to understand the impact of XML and how it can bridge the enormous hurdles this industry has battled for many years.”