Building-automation systems used to function in separate technology silos. Now, those vendors are rapidly adopting IP, Web services and other technologies that are beginning to converge with traditional IT infrastructures.

At Panasonic of North America's headquarters, a project is under way to replace wall-mounted thermostats with individual, virtual thermostats controlled by PCs. Real estate management firm Kenmark Group in San Francisco created an operations centre to save energy by centrally monitoring and controlling the multiple office buildings it manages. The system includes a common Web portal, and uses XML and an IP backbone network to talk to components within individual buildings.

Toronto Pearson International Airport is tying a flight information database to heating, lighting and air conditioning systems at each gate, in order to restrict energy use to those periods when gate areas are occupied.

As building automation systems (BAS) that control heat, air conditioning, lighting and other building systems get smarter, they're converging with traditional IT infrastructures. Emerging standards are enabling data sharing between building systems as well as with other business applications, improving efficiency and real-time control over building operating costs. Information security concerns, immature standards, the reluctance of vendors to give up proprietary technologies, and ignorance among IT professionals of the convergence trend are all slowing the pace of this transformation, but it's gathering momentum.

Facilities managers are driving the change by demanding more-open systems. They're pushing BAS vendors to transform today's closed technologies into Web-enabled applications running over industry-standard IP networks. And the management of BAS is likely to increasingly fall to IT.

IT's horizon just got broader - again"IT folks are entering an era where virtually everything is converging in their direction, and it broadens their horizons tremendously," says Rick LeBlanc, president of HVAC products at Siemens Building Technologies. IT won't operate BASs, but it will serve the facilities staff as a customer in much the same way it does accounting and other departments today, he says.

Many large companies already have centralised BASs that monitor and control the environment throughout large buildings and across campuses. These systems have begun to migrate to more open IT infrastructures in much the same way that telephone systems and IT networks have converged.

"Right now, there is a clamour to integrate control systems into IT networks," says Tom Hartman, principal at Texas consultancy The Hartman Co. But the trend is likely to go well beyond that. Today's BASs typically include a network of sensors and other devices connected to controllers on each floor, a master controller for a building or campus, a Web server front end for monitoring building systems, and a back-end database for storing historical data.

But as intelligence continues to move into actuators, chillers, security cameras, sensors and other elements of building systems, these devices will increasingly communicate as peers via Web services, allowing BASs to be more flexible and integrate better with other systems. "Next-generation buildings will be much more (integrated) than simply having the building automation system use the IT network," says Rick LeBlanc.

"The long-term vision is that you'll be able to physically control everything based on preferences, criteria and business rules," adds Joshua Aaron, president of Business Technology Partners, a New York-based consultancy that helps companies physically move their IT infrastructures and data centres. But, he says, "I don't see a lot of companies springing for it yet."

Evolving standardsOpen standards are just beginning to evolve and will likely break down the silos between building systems ranging from physical security to elevator controls. And the data from those systems is likely to be shared with other business applications such as the accounting system. This will allow for more-efficient buildings as applications are developed that can capitalise on newly converged data streams and real-time access to data.

"Standards will allow data to be shared between the two systems, and business decisions can be made (based) on that merged data," says Ron Zimmer, president of the Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA) in Ottawa. But this nascent trend has largely gone unnoticed by IT organisations, Zimmer says. "It's being driven by the building side."

In the past, controlling the heat involved a call to the facilities person in the basement, who would turn valves to adjust the temperature. Current automated systems use sensors to detect comfort level and actuators to control the valves, but little else has changed.

"The first step with systems when they get computerised is you pave the cow path," says Toby Considine, chairman of the OASIS Open Building Information Exchange (OBIX) committee, which was formed in April 2003 to develop a standard, Web-based set of building-control system interfaces.

In part 2 tomorrow - Standards, Security and Web-enablement.