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Middleware Needs Standardization to Hold Smart Buildings Together

In the physical world, hundreds of sensors are collecting data throughout every floor of smart buildings. In the digital world, building engineers and AI-power intelligence are analyzing and leveraging that data to produce actionable optimization. Bridging the gap between those two processes is proving to be one of the biggest challenges for smart buildings. The way that it is done is through a connective piece of software called middleware. In order to make sure the never-ending flow of data can get where it needs to go middleware standardization is needed. 

Raw data is practically useless. Without qualifiers and context, raw data can’t be understood. To be useful, data must be sorted, arranged, meta tagged, and often presented visually. Decision-makers, whether an automated system or on-site engineer, must be able to understand the data for it to be useful. Smart buildings continue to fill with all manner of sensors, measuring occupancy, air quality, natural light, temperature, access, and more. Reading and routing the raw data coming off those sensors is the job of middleware. The better data can be routed and tagged, the better aggregation and intelligence functions at the application level. One of the things holding this important process back is that there is currently no data standardization to facilitate communication. 

“There’s lots of talk about standardization in the industry, but it’s proving to be very difficult,” Daniel Russo, Chief Product Officer of Building Engines said. Russo is working to build a full-stack smart building management platform aimed at optimizing how buildings run. Doing that requires access to all sorts of data, making standardization a major challenge. One of the challenges to standardization is that currently there isn’t even an industry standard for how devices are named on a network, “how do you even name equipment in the system?” Russo said. “A lot of equipment just sends a 32 digit ID. Someone has to name it, put metadata around it. The industry is trying to normalize, to come up with naming equipment sensors, some sort of hierarchy so that when you pull data off a sensor it’s useful.”

The lack of standardization in IoT is a problem plaguing several industries. With a greater number of connected devices being implemented in practically every industry, the need for seamless collaboration between those devices has never been greater, making middleware an important piece of any built world tech stack. Industry-agnostic application middleware will play a vital role in reducing the complexity that is holding much of the PropTech and IoT industry back from more widespread adoption. Government initiatives pushing for smart cities, connected grids, and the growing integration of IoT into machinery, equipment, and mobile devices mean standardization will be required for interoperability.  

There’s no single body dedicated to solving this growing issue. Some enterprise-focused IoT is working to develop machine-to-machine (M2M) communication like the open membership organization Industrial Internet Consortium’s (IIC) oneM2M specification or processor developer ARM’s Open Trust Protocol (OTrP). Automated building management system providers like Schneider, Johnson Controls, Cisco, and Prescriptive Data have been working to build API layers between systems to allow for more interoperability. Alteron has developed software relying on standards like TCP/IP and BACnet. Automated Logic is working to build on data exchanges via Web Services (XML/SOAP). IBM, Siemens, Delta Controls, and others are working on their own interoperability framework. You can see the problem. Every middleware operation is moving in a different direction, making standardization that much harder. Hardware and software have their own approach.

“Hardware vendors come at this from a hardware perspective, they want the building to buy more hardware,” Russo explained. “So a lot of middleware is being run on a machine in a closet in the building. Then you’ve got the cloud, where everything is moving. So there’s a push and a pull to who is selling solutions. Hardware vendors say it’s more secure to have it in the building, but the cloud is now more secure and can process massive amounts of data.” 

Without standardization, the type of aggregation needed to run smart cities at scale is not possible. Good middleware makes commercial BMS systems capable of more, in turn making them a more viable solution for the building management industry. Transitioning building stock to smart buildings over time will facilitate sustainable management at an urban scale, but none of that will be possible without a standardized middleware layer. 

As things stand now, the hope is some enterprise currently working to develop middleware is make one so good the rest of the industry adopts it, but that prospect is unlikely given the sector’s fragmented nature. Some regulator guidance may be called for. The National National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)has been working on what it calls Pivotal Points of Interoperability, hoping to establish guidance on interoperability for IoT and legacy systems. 

Establishing interoperability between devices and systems is the key to unlocking the true potential of smart buildings. Building out a standardization framework with enough capability and buy-in from stakeholders will not be easy, but it is possible. Technology standards are pillars of our data-driven economy, a pillar that the building industry is not yet able to rely on.

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