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Open Building Management Systems should hold no fear

Simon Ward, Director of Sales, UK & Ireland – Distech Controls, explains why an open Building Management System (BMS) is the way forward for data centres.

We are increasingly reliant on phones, computers and the applications that run on them. With the advancement of technologies like IoT, 5G and autonomous cars, we will only need more infrastructure to handle the data we and our machines create every day.

A critical element of our digital infrastructure is the many data centres that process and connect our digital devices to the information needed.

Today, the widespread demand for transparency, new data points and improved analytics in the data centre environment requires a controls approach that is secure, scalable, resilient and flexible.

Data centre facilities typically manage their mechanical and electrical systems using either Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) or Direct Digital Control (DDC) systems. The functions of both PLC and DDC are very similar. Both have digital input, digital output, analogue input, analogue output for basic control operation. The application of either control approach comes down to the goals of the stakeholders and conditions under which they are operated.

So, let’s take a look at the differences between the two systems. 

Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) vs Direct Digital Control (DDC) systems

Traditionally, PLCs have been popular for industrial and processes applications, where fast, resilient and fully programmable controllers are required. Praised by many for their response time, PLCs respond in fractions of seconds. This makes them ideal for near real-time actions, such as safety shutdown or firing control. While fractions of seconds are critical in manufacturing, it is not required in building-related control response times. Temperature and humidity control of a facility does not rely on fractions of seconds in logic response; it takes time to gather the data. 

On the other side, DDC systems have been used in a wide variety of Building Automation (BAS/BMS) applications. DDC became available around 1980 and was developed specifically for the control of building systems (HVAC, security and lighting). 

By leveraging standardised and commonly-used technologies shared by IT systems, the capabilities of DDC systems have shared many of the same advancements that computers have. 

The connectivity of DDC has helped create a foundation of open and easily integrated systems. By starting with an IP-based system, DDC systems easily incorporate new devices and data sources using open, standard protocols and open-source languages like RESTful APIs. RESTful APIs are the preferred approach to integrate the digital and physical world. APIs create a fast, secure, low-cost method of connection for our devices and software that is native to the IT world. 

Data centre controls systems should be built to easily integrate new sensors and third-party software, including cloud services.

BMS manufacturers and system integrators are a great resource for finding the system approach that is best for the goals of both the data centre and the customers. When discussing the controls system options, it is important for clients to ask about the transparency, flexibility, and future readiness of their choices. Though PLCs and DDC systems can both provide similar basic functionality of controlling a facility, each has unique attributes. Review the features that best match your business needs today, and in the future, before accepting a proposed solution.

Selecting the right system for you – be open 

In the past, building systems have traditionally been proprietary and not flexible like open systems. Proprietary systems speak different languages, resulting in incomplete visibility, data and reliability, and leave you tied to one, often expensive, service provider.

However, that is changing, and open systems are becoming ever more popular in commercial buildings and have numerous benefits for data centres. 

Open systems offer monitoring and analytics at the local controller, reducing network complexity, and increasing redundancy and security. Distech Controls was the first to create intelligent building solutions utilising artificial intelligence enabling continuous learning for continuous optimisation. Open systems can bring everything together in a cohesive and centralised fashion, allowing users to visualise information, assess relationships, establish benchmarks and then optimise energy efficiency accordingly.

New open systems can meet even the most demanding data centre control requirements (even remotely) via fully programmable controls and advanced graphical configuration capabilities. For instance, the new Distech Controls ECLYPSE APEX is a powerful HVAC/IoT edge controller that offers enhanced performance and dedicated spaces to IoT and AI developers. It facilitates HVAC system maintenance, increases efficiency of equipment and optimises energy consumption by leveraging the latest available technology on-site.

Embedded RESTful API exchanges data from different applications, such as energy dashboards, analytics tools and mobile applications, on the premises or from the cloud with the IoT Hub connector. Using a RESTful API interface makes integration easier for systems integrators by enabling IT web services to easily interact with software applications. RESTful APIs also provide flexibility as the API can handle multiple types of input and return different data formats. In summary, it allows developers to meet the needs of data centre operators as well as facilities and energy managers.

The smarter buildings become the higher the importance of cyber security. There are some fundamentals that building owners and system integrators need to consider when it comes to the security of their BMS. 

As a starting point, the devices or operational technology (OT) should be on a different network to the IT system, as they have separate security requirements and various people need to access them. As an example, contractors overseeing BMS devices do not need access to HR information. Each device should be locked down securely so they can only communicate in the way that is required. There should be no unnecessary inbound or outbound traffic from these devices. 

This links neatly to monitoring. It is vital to monitor the devices after installation and commissioning to ensure there is no untoward traffic to the devices that could threaten a building’s or company’s security. Some manufacturers, such as Distech Controls, are ensuring their products are secure straight out of the box. Security features are built directly into hardware and software like TLS 256- bit encryption, built-in HTTPS server and HTTPS certificates. For instance, the ECLYPSE APEX incorporates a secure boot and additional physical security measures to help overcome today’s security challenges. 

Data centres are unique buildings and a BMS requires careful planning and implementation. An open system has many benefits and should hold no fear for data centre operators, facilities managers or system integrators. 

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