As-a-service models have been around for quite some time and have grown increasingly popular. Examples include Microsoft 365, Salesforce, Zendesk and Slack. But with each of these cloud-service offerings, only a PC and a client or web-based dashboard need to be supported by the provider. However, when it comes to service models that require the management of purpose-built hardware, added challenges surface regarding how the hardware devices are managed and serviced by the provider.
Smart buildings as a service (SBaas) are finally becoming a trend as service providers are now figuring out how to create a support chain that grants them the necessary visibility and flexibility to support smart building IoT and operational technologies remotely. Let’s look at how this support model is shaping up, its potential deficiencies, and whether an SBaaS model makes sense for building owners and operators.
The Evolution of Hardware-based As-a-Service Models
Software, unlike hardware, does not face the challenges of aging components that require replacements and physical updates. This is the biggest challenge to service providers that wish to create an as-a-service model for enterprise IT solutions like intelligent building technologies. Managing the health and performance of hardware-based systems often requires physical access to those devices in order to troubleshoot hardware faults and replace failing devices. That means that, unlike software as a service (SaaS) providers who are only responsible for an application or web-based product, SBaaS providers must have a local presence close to customer locations to provide timely on-site troubleshooting and maintenance services.
A great example of how the SBaaS model can work is to look at other successful hardware-centric as-a-service companies. One company that comes to mind is Nile Secure and its network as a service (NaaS) model. Nile sells enterprise-grade network equipment, including switches, Wi-Fi access points and firewalls. What makes Nile unique in the market right now is that the company uses an as-a-service model. This means that the entire network design and ongoing operations of the network are fully managed by Nile’s in-house support staff. Doing so offloads all the architecture, troubleshooting and failed hardware replacement off of the enterprise that uses the network.
The process of a Nile NaaS works as follows:
- Nile architects conduct on-site network surveys for the building or campus where the equipment is to be deployed
- A bill-of-materials and network is created for the customer
- Nile pre-configures each device within the cloud platform
- Customers receive the network hardware, unbox it and connect it to the internet
- The hardware reaches out to the Nile cloud and automatically configures each device
- Once the network is built, artificial intelligence within the Nile cloud remotely monitors the entire network environment, automates day-to-day tasks such as firmware upgrades, and proactively identifies security/performance faults
Where things get tricky, however, is if a hardware component begins to fail or becomes end-of-life (EOL) or end-of-support (EOS). But as Nile uses a fixed and small hardware ecosystem, it’s relatively easy for them to craft hardware replacement and capacity needs of their NaaS customers. The company has established a distribution supply chain and leverages regional partners that assist with rapid hardware replacement and on-site troubleshooting support.
The Challenges that SBaaS Providers Face
Unlike Nile, which has a minimal portfolio of hardware solutions to support, many SBaaS providers do not have such luxuries. Because Smart building IT and OT systems span a wide range of uses and often come from multiple manufacturers, the hardware supply chain and localized support get complicated in a hurry. What ends up happening is that SBaaS providers specialize in supporting a very specific smart building solutions such as certain vendor BMS/BAS, door controllers, and smart lighting as opposed to everything under the sun.
For smart building as-a-service customers, this severely limits what can or cannot be installed and managed by a third party. On the other hand, if the service provider offers hardware and software that is sufficient for a specific building or campus, it frees up costly IT resources and places the responsibility of maintaining a fully functioning smart building on someone else.
The Optimal Time to Consider SBaaS
Most buildings with integrated smart building technologies will likely be hard-pressed to find an SBaaS provider that supports the multitude of products deployed. Thus, the best time to consider an SBaaS provider is during the initial planning stages of a brand new building/campus or when a complete technology overhaul of a building is required. This allows owners and operators to vet the various providers regarding their portfolio of smart building technologies and what they can offer from an on-site support standpoint.
It’s also likely that several major smart building technologies manufacturers will create their own SBaaS model in the coming months and years that offers a far more structured approach to hardware replacements, similar to that of Nile. Thus, SBaaS is likely too early to consider for most building owners who manage large numbers of commercial properties that likely have technologies already installed. That said, SBaaS will eventually become a viable alternative to current in-house design and support models–it’ll simply take time.