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6 reasons the role of OT master systems integrator is evolving

Aug. 18, 2023
MSIs are critical to the design of smart buildings, but they are taking on new roles as the industry evolves. Here’s why.

Operational technology (OT) has long been the focus of building systems management. The role of the OT master systems integrator (MSI) arose to ensure building systems—such as lighting, HVAC, and access controls—worked seamlessly together.

However, the workforce has grown smaller as new digital tools have made it easier to manage these concerns in-house without a third-party expert. More than 335,000 MSI jobs existed in 2018, but that number fell shy of 180,000 in 2020. The role is starting to grow in numbers again, but the job description is changing as smart technology transforms the building industry. As building infrastructure evolves, so must the MSI.

1. IT and OT lines are blurring

The primary reason for the field’s evolution is that OT and information technology (IT) are no longer separate disciplines. The rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) means more building operational technologies today have IT functionality. Consequently, MSIs must have knowledge and experience in both categories.

Experts expect the number of smart buildings to grow by more than 150% by 2026. Much of this spending will go to nonresidential properties, where the MSI typically plays a larger role than in residential properties. Subsequently, MSIs will have to manage an increasing number of IT considerations, such as connectivity protocols and software compatibility, on top of conventional OT factors.

As IoT-centric design accounts for an increasing share of all buildings, clients will prefer to work with MSIs with relevant IT skills. Those who don’t adapt to this shift may struggle to compete.

2. New projects demand MSI input earlier

Today, OT MSIs are expected to provide project input earlier in the design or retrofit process. Instead of integrating new systems into an existing property, MSIs must help meet all these other demands in the design phase.

Concerns such as data collection, cybersecurity, regulatory compliance, controls testing, and IoT system efficiency are easier to direct when they are considered from the beginning of a project instead of retrofitted into existing solutions. Ideally, an MSI will work with architects to account for these factors in the building design. Proactive MSIs can look for partnerships with architects and other design team members, in addition to partnerships with building owners or developers.

Building information modeling (BIM) software — which 98% of large U.S. architecture firms use today— can help designers and architects balance these IT/OT concerns through automated recommendations and clash-detection tools that pinpoint potential issues. However, designers still need input from MSIs to ensure real-world functionality and to confirm OT systems will deliver the energy savings or ease of control suggested by BIM. As this design philosophy grows, integrators will take on more of a decision-making role than that of a conventional service provider.

3. IT/OT convergence introduces security challenges

The prospect of cybersecurity attacks in the integrated IT/OT systems has rapidly increased. Integrating IT and OT systems means that once air-gapped OT is now vulnerable to IT security risks like hacking. That vulnerability can cause significant damage if left unaddressed.

Consider how manufacturing became the most-targeted sector for cybercrime in 2022. As IoT adoption in manufacturing rose, manufacturers that weren’t used to managing cybersecurity threats became easy targets. The same could happen with smart buildings if MSIs don’t recognize and adapt accordingly.

MSIs don’t necessarily need to be cybersecurity experts, but they should have some skills and experience in the discipline. Current and hopeful MSIs can take online IoT security training courses, like CTIA’s IoT cybersecurity certification or the Expert IoT security framework and certification from PSA Certified.

Integration must include security-focused steps like ensuring IoT systems have reliable data encryption standards, are compatible with monitoring software, and run on a network separate from sensitive devices and data.

4. IoT regulations are increasing

As these security concerns grow, so do legal requirements around the IoT. This evolving regulatory landscape means that OT master systems integrators must also become familiar with IoT regulations and how they’re changing.

Currently, IoT and security laws are sparse and vary widely, but that’s changing. Amid these changes, regulatory knowledge and compliance will become an increasingly important part of systems integration. As such, MSIs must focus on the latest regulatory guidance and legal understanding.

Congress’ IoT Cybersecurity Improvement Act requires IoT systems to meet security standards in federal government applications. If MSIs work with offices or buildings owned or occupied by government employees or contractors, they must ensure IT/OT systems comply with these guidelines, particularly as security legislation increases.

For example, MSIs at organizations working with the Department of Defense can turn to NIST standards 800-171 and 800-172, as these align with the DoD’s Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification baseline. The National Conference of State Legislatures can provide information on varying state security laws.

Businesses in the private sector may not follow federal guidelines. However, some states, such as California, may require additional protections for IoT systems, and their laws can serve as baselines for businesses or owners creating their own standards.

5. Ownership of systems control is shifting

Before the rise of smart buildings, control over building systems’ power distribution, sources and the corresponding data was largely in the hands of integrators and utility providers, and not occupants and utility customers. Building owners and occupants controlled how they used these systems but had to turn to these other parties for larger concerns, like monitoring their energy usage and connecting them to other systems. That’s no longer the case today.

Modern utility customers demand more control over their meters as new technologies enable two-way energy flows, selling power back to the grid, and real-time data insights. As control shifts from utility providers to end users, integrators’ roles are likewise changing. Instead of setting up a system where occupants don’t have much agency over building OT, they must create one in which users have more control.

MSIs can look for IoT-enabled solutions, such as building data analytics platforms like Johnson Controls’ OpenBlue Enterprise Manager or smart building endpoints like OnLogic IoT gateways, that give end users this ability.

As a result, integration is becoming less of a managerial role and more of a transitionary one. MSIs can pass control on to their clients instead of handling it all for them or providing third-party control. MSIs today might have several clients where they don’t have any oversight on controls after setting up the system that the owners then operate.

6. Data needs are evolving

Similarly, clients’ data demands are shifting. Successful OT MSIs will most likely be those who can provide more data transparency to their clients and draw actionable insights from that data.

Building occupants today want more insight into how their OT operates to inform smarter economic and environmental decisions. To do that, they need larger volumes of data over a wider range of applications. Integrators can help ensure buildings are equipped with tools like smart thermostats and IoT energy monitors to collect and share this data to meet this need.

The desire to reduce energy usage is a significant driver behind these data demands. Building operations account for 30% of global power consumption, resulting in high costs and greenhouse gas emissions. Businesses today want to minimize both, so integrators must become experts in technologies like IoT sensors and analytics software to provide clients the relevant insights to meet these goals.

MSIs can gain this expertise by pursuing IoT certifications like the Internet of Things Foundation certification or Certified Internet of Things Practitioner, many of which have online courses and assessments available.

Of course, some building owners and occupants may feel overwhelmed by the massive amount of incoming data and its management. MSIs can use their IoT and data expertise to offer analytics and turn energy data into actionable and valuable insights.

MSIs today should become familiar with OT and IT functionality, cybersecurity, IoT regulations, and data management. They must also work earlier in the building design and retrofit process and emphasize end-user control. As more MSIs evolve to meet these roles, smart buildings will be more likely to deliver on their promise.

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About the Author

Emily Newton, Grid Media Services, LLC

Emily Newton is an industrial and tech journalist passionate about how technology is revolutionizing each sector. She has been writing and editing professionally for more than five years and is the editor-in-chief of Revolutionized.

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