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There's a lot of focus today on the greening of the data centre. But the energy conservation movement and the proliferation of IP-based data transport are also causing IT to pay more attention to building and facilities management, an area that has traditionally been outside its purview.

How LonWorks operates

In the LonWorks system, a building system's devices - HVAC equipment, light switches and room occupancy sensors - are outfitted with chips. These chips run scheduling, alarm and data-logging applications and also enable the devices to communicate with one another in a peer-to-peer control network via a widely accepted protocol written by Echelon.

The control network interfaces with the i.LON 100 Internet Server, which serves up Web pages to any Internet Explorer-compatible browser. It also acts as a gateway to the corporate IP network, a dedicated IP network or the Internet, providing facilities managers with Web access to the scheduling, alarm and data-logging applications residing in the devices. The i.LON also provides a SOAP/XML Web services interface for integration with corporate applications.

Echelon may be a pioneer in open systems, but it's not the only company offering Web-accessible control networks. Site Controls offers an open-source, internet-enabled energy management system that allows retail, restaurant and convenience-store franchises to monitor and control their building systems to minimise energy costs. The rest of the competition is largely from makers of proprietary systems, such as Johnson Controls and Delta Controls.

From sportswear retailer Eddie Bauer to the New York public school system, organisations throughout the US are implementing automated building control systems that send vital data over IP-based networks and are manageable through Web portals. The common goal is to reduce energy costs and comply with green building standards.

"Building systems are beginning to use the IT backbone as their medium to get information back and forth from the control systems" to the people who monitor them, says Terry Reynolds, vice president for business development at Control Technologies, a systems integrator that helped implement the New York schools' system.

In many cases, facilities and building managers work directly with integrators to design and implement these networks. But even then, IT is needed to make critical decisions, such as whether there's enough bandwidth on corporate IP networks for the new data to flow in real time; how to carve out roles for IT, facilities and other departments for managing the new data transport; what security measures should be implemented, especially when the setup involves sending the data across the Internet; and how to set up the network addressing and naming schemes for the new devices.

When Eddie Bauer needed to replace its automated temperature control system at its 2.2-million-square-foot fulfilment centre in Ohio, it went with the LonWorks system from Echelon, a provider of networks that control and monitor heating, ventilation, air conditioning and lighting systems as well as other equipment.

With LonWorks, facilities manager Jim Annable can track the accuracy of the company's electric bills, as well as monitor trends and analyse data to fine-tune the schedule for turning on and shutting down systems. He can set thresholds for system alarms to notify him of conditions such as excessive temperatures, and he worked with IT to enable the system to page him over the intranet so he can respond remotely to unusual situations.

Annable can also monitor electrical usage in real time via a web interface to minimise usage during periods of peak demand and thus reduce costs.

"Utility bills are based on peak usage, so you want to keep that as low as possible," he explains. "We can shed load by turning off our air-handling units in certain parts of the facility or our high-speed sorting equipment. It's a matter of constantly balancing what we turn on and off, sequencing and timing. If the system calls for an air handler to turn on, and we delay it by 10 minutes, we can avoid being penalised by the utility company."

So far, the system has helped the facility reduce costs by more than $350,000 - just under 20% of its utility budget - and achieve return on investment in less than a year.

Greener schools

The New York City School Construction Authority is also adopting LonWorks to reduce energy and facility management expenses as it undertakes a massive design, construction and renovation effort for the city's 1,200 schools. The system will also help the agency comply with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design initiative, a national standard for green building design.

Reynolds worked closely with the city's IT department to carve out a piece of the existing WAN for data transport from each school to a central location in Queens. "We're sharing a data highway that's typically not used for this kind of [real-time] transport," he says.

"The timing of information can be critical," he adds, like when the school system is trying to respond to a utility provider's request to shed power load.

"We had a lot of discussion about disaster recovery and allocation of channel bandwidth that had to be ironed out," Reynolds says. "Now we're one of the regular users on the WAN."

IT's involvement with these types of systems varies from organisation to organisation. In the New York school project, IT staffers were present right from the start, Reynolds says, noting that they helped select his company as integrator. IT also helped work out contractual issues for network support roles and responsibilities. "Our interaction with IT was to iron out the grand design and establish grounds for ongoing communication and coordinate things as each school is built," Reynolds says.

At Eddie Bauer, Annable worked with integrator Advanced Control Systems to design and implement the system. Annable first planned to connect the network to the existing corporate network. But just a few months after the implementation, he and the IT group decided to switch to a dedicated Ethernet backbone based on concerns about cost, throughput and security.

"This reduced some cabling costs for the locations we were trying to pick up," he says. Eddie Bauer also liked the idea of having a single point of connection with the intranet via a router so it could establish a firewall there rather than have multiple points of connection, Annable says.

As the green movement grows in the US, IT's interaction with facilities management will only increase. "There's no way IT can dodge controls anymore," says Echelon CIO Dick Carlson. "Buildings are just getting smarter."