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Balancing Your Building Management System's Data Load

Building management generates a lot of data and requires a consistent load of processing, which all needs a home somewhere. That means sensors, servers, cables, routers, all kinds of inputs and throughputs that require channeling, processing, and storing.

There are two methods for housing all of this processing and data: in the cloud or on the edge, each with pros and cons that need to be weighed when designing smart building systems. Finding a balance between convenience and headache is essential to running a building management system (BMS), particularly when designing programs for smart buildings.

In order to identify the right setup for your smart building programs, let’s dive into the options and assess what they offer.

Life on the Edge

The typical arrangement for solving the server needs of a BMS is to embed all of the necessary equipment in-house, typically in humming along in closets or taking up space under office furniture.

Many of the legacy BMS solutions providers like Siemens, Honeywell, or Johnson Controls deploy onsite solutions, setting up a fresh stack of servers at each client site. From there, the building chugs along with the BMS running out of the server stack, probably located in the basement.

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This onsite ownership presents a double-edged sword. Having everything onsite can be convenient for making repairs and upgrades, but also demands total responsibility for the servers’ maintenance and security.

Most building staff aren’t equipped for handling the requisite security needs, particularly on the cyber front. It’s unlikely that small and mid-sized building management firms can afford to employ a sophisticated information security team, which leaves a gaping hole in the BMS’s long-term stability.

And if more smart building programs are adopted, that’s an increasing amount of data flowing through and into the BMS over time, necessitating upgrades in storage and security on shorter timelines.

However, processing data on the edge isn’t all doom and gloom. Using an onsite BMS ensures that all data remains confidential, proprietary, and immediately accessible. This is ideal for sensitive information such as your building’s occupancy analytics or access controls.

The most helpful boon from edge-located processing is the immediacy of responsiveness in smart building programming. Numerous kinds of smart building programs run in real time, the kind where a even a second of delay would be less than tenable, which necessitates a system capable of receiving data, processing it, and issuing commands within an infinitesimally small turnaround time.

When tagging security badges at a kiosk, people expect an immediate response. No one wants to spend five seconds waiting for a simple verification for entry to go to work.

Onsite processing enables quick responses for entry and exit and it enables more features, such as active monitoring and live analytics.

Another gain from edge-based processing is the reliability. In the event of a mass network or power outage, smart buildings could be rendered inert unless they run their BMS locally, creating a kind of intranet for the building that can function so long as there’s a steady power supply.

Onsite processing removes all the degrees of failure associated with relying on an ISP, which means no bandwidth caps and no fear of pesky squirrels taking out the neighborhood’s transformer.

Up in the Cloud

The alternative to onsite data management is to gather it all up and toss it out the 63rd story window into the clouds… What? Actually, the BMS routes the data generates into the proverbial cloud (a faceless mass of managed servers distributed around the world) and runs its processing there.

Using a cloud solution directly saves building managers a lot of stress and work. Real estate isn’t wasted on server rooms, so that basement space could be rented out as storage space to tenants or used for some other commercial space.

Cloud-based processing also means building managers don’t need to build their own security engineers. Instead, cloud providers like Enertiv handle the security aspect with dedicated, specialized teams. As well, those companies handle the server maintenance and upgrades, taking that expense off the building’s bottom line.

The downside to relying on cloud services is the latency that comes with moving all your processing offsite. When an entire BMS runs in the cloud, you can expect your entry turnstiles to lag on admitting people after they scan their badges. Elevators will receive commands from the BMS at a slower pace, leading to longer wait times and slower conveyance of people.

Tenants will surely grow cranky if basic activities take longer than they did and the building will surely get bad reviews on Yelp and Google Maps, discouraging future tenants from signing up for those juicy long-term leases.

Relying completely on a cloud-based solution also calls into question the control and propriety of the building data. Signing contracts that don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, that don’t give up ownership of the data generated and processed by the BMS will be mission critical and require superb legal counsel, an extra expense on top of the setup and subscription fees.

And that data will be less accessible once it’s stored in a cloud provider’s walled garden. Moving it all out for any transfers at a later date will be a hassle and there could be issues of general access if the cloud company is hacked or goes under, potentially getting sold for parts.

Strike a Harmonious Balance

By now, it should be clear that computing in the cloud and on the edge both have great benefits and steep opportunity costs. Going all in on one or the other isn’t the optimal strategy for implementing a BMS, especially when designing a smart building.

The best approach is to bifurcate the data flow and processes, assigning some to a cloud computing company and handling the rest internally, on the edge. Find a good cloud provider to handle macro tasks and set up an onsite server to handle the more immediate, real time processing.

Under this dual regime, processes that can be run in the cloud would be auxiliary, the kind not necessary for the daily function of the building: reporting and analytics, compliance data, maintenance updates, and the like.

Storing more granular data on the edge is the best use for those onsite servers, which aren’t taking up too much space, and operating things like occupancy analytics, the individual building’s machine learning, access controls, elevators, doors, anything that needs a high degree of reliability and a fast response time.

In the event of a widespread network outage, a building’s local intranet can be a tremendous saving grace, enabling people to enter, exit, and traverse  the building as needed. Just remember to keep those backup generators fueled in case of such an emergency.

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A new software provider that handles this split approach, both edge- and cloud-based BMS processing simultaneously, is Automata. It’s built to be adaptive to a building’s individual needs and is future-facing, so no one is trapped using outdated methodologies or technologies.

Identifying the right strategies for handling your building’s data and BMS is essential to good smart building governance and ensuring that servers don’t end up dooming your budget. Picking and choosing what gets run locally and what goes into the cloud based on needs of immediacy and efficiency will keep your BMS running smoothly and make for happy tenants.

Jonathan Goodwin