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Smart buildings: Why OT interoperability matters

March 30, 2022
Internet Protocol will bring all operational technology systems together speaking the same language. Or will it?

For the foreseeable future, technology will be seen as the primary path to achieving gains in building efficiency and occupant satisfaction. This will require interoperability among pertinent systems, as well as collection of smart building data and AI-backed analysis. Interoperability of the operational technology (OT) platform holds the key to a rapid return on investment (ROI). As a result, building owners and operators should ensure these requirements are made clear.

What is OT interoperability and why is it important?

Smart buildings contain any number of operational technologies that help automate and streamline processes and provide value-added features to occupants. But the most effective way to gain significant ROI from a project is to collect, analyze, and act upon applicable building data from multiple technology sources. Smart building management systems must be able to interact with each other and provide integration hooks that allow analytics platforms to have a single point of unified OT visibility from which to make data-driven decisions.

Bidirectional communication between two or more platforms allows relevant data to be shared and analyzed in a unified manner—this is the ultimate reason for OT interoperability. Without cross-communication and information sharing, each OT system continues to work independently due to a lack of operational awareness that other systems could provide if they were compatible.

OT interoperability challenges

Interoperability among OT systems enables the most informed automated decisions. However, many OT platforms rely on different communications protocols that are either proprietary in nature or lack inter-protocol translation capabilities. This is a significant roadblock for many buildings seeking to become intelligent.

For example, modern HVAC systems, with the capacity to identify areas within a building where occupants reside in real-time, typically communicate over the standard internet protocol suite, better known as IP. Given this information, a building management system can analyze continuously collected data from multiple sources and direct where air conditioning and airflow should or should not be. But if the various OT systems use different communications protocols, those protocols’ inability to interoperate blocks the potential efficiencies that the HVAC system can deliver.

Interoperability within protocols

Bidirectional interoperability is possible when OT systems can communicate with each other using a protocol that all can understand. Legacy methods include BACnet and Modbus, which are open standard protocols adopted by many OT vendors over the years.

However, the recent trend of consolidating OT and IT systems onto a single unified IP-based network has compounded interoperability issues. IP is the de facto standard that OT systems are moving toward in consolidated network environments. Because of this significant architecture shift within a smart building, OT systems may be required to communicate using not only the legacy OT communication protocols, but also IP, which is the only protocol some modern systems can understand. In buildings where older OT systems are integrated with modern counterparts, multiple protocols are required.

The good news is that many third-party building management systems (BMSs) can communicate using the optimal protocol for an OT system—old or new—and become a central management platform from which to control and monitor the entire OT infrastructure. A BMS can also provide communication translation services to deliver the desired interoperability needed to achieve smart building OT goals.

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About the Author

Andrew Froehlich | Contributor

As a highly regarded network architect and trusted IT consultant with worldwide contacts, Andrew Froehlich counts over two decades of experience and possesses multiple industry certifications in the field of enterprise networking. Andrew is the founder and president of Colorado-based West Gate Networks, which specializes in enterprise network architectures and data center build-outs. He’s also the founder of an enterprise IT research and analysis firm, InfraMomentum. As the author of two Cisco certification study guides published by Sybex, he is a regular contributor to multiple enterprise IT-related websites and trade journals with insights into rapidly changing developments in the IT industry.

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