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Designing the network infrastructure for smart buildings

Patrick Chown

Patrick Chown

Owner and President at The Network Installer
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Image credit: arleksey / Shutterstock.com

Smart buildings are becoming a regular feature in the world around us, in settings that range from high-rise offices to high-tech manufacturing facilities.

The analytics offered by the sensors and systems of a smart building offer plenty of value to business owners and managers – but in order to provide the most value, there are some network design principles to keep in mind.

The scope of a smart building

The first step in any network installation is to determine its scope, and smart buildings are no different. Just how smart does the building need to be?

Today’s ‘smart building’ is a concept that can incorporate a vast array of network-connected devices and sensors, from workstation computers, automatic doors, and badge credential devices, to self-adjusting thermostats and HVAC systems, sensors to monitor sensitive equipment for failure, and advanced analytics software and sensors to maintain LEED credentials.

The possibilities are almost endless, but need to be narrowed for an effective network design. Clearly define the scope of a smart building before you begin, as well as the ways it may need to be scaled in the future.

All over IP

The best way to truly leverage the combined sensors and systems in a smart building is to bring them onto a shared platform to communicate using the same language. ‘All over IP’ is a network infrastructure approach that utilises Internet Protocol to connect the disparate components of a smart building.

Elements such as LAN, Wireless LAN, Ethernet/IP cabling, and PoE can all be united through Internet Protocol. This allows a greater degree of automation and data insights, and it enables digital monitoring and control across the entire building-based network. IP-based authentication and access controls also boost building security considerably.

‘All over IP’ is also highly scalable, as more and more inexpensive Ethernet/IP-enabled devices hit the market. And network designers can avail themselves of all of them, since IP-based networks are application-neutral and manufacturer-agnostic. Plus, Internet Protocol version (IPv6) makes it possible to add an almost unlimited number of devices to a network.

Universal connectivity and Power over Ethernet

In terms of connectivity, high-bandwidth copper and fibre-core cables are ideal for smart buildings, both because they can easily transmit data with low latency, and because they are scalable for future expansions. In terms of power supply, Power over Ethernet, or PoE, is an essential technology in the network infrastructure of smart buildings.

PoE is a networking technique that delivers DC power over the same copper cables that provide Ethernet connectivity. When a single cable transports both data and power, the amount of necessary cabling is reduced, network installation is faster, safety is improved, and cost is much reduced.

In a smart building with PoE, every sensor, system, device is connected to the local IP network and to a power source in one cable. This halves the number of cables needed in any smart building installation, and ensures that all systems will have power regardless of local outages – which makes for a more robust, reliable building network.

Network reliability

The overall effectiveness and efficiency of a smart building comes down to the design of its wired network. The physical layer of the building’s network must be robust, redundant, and reliable in order to bear the load of an entire structure full of human data users as well as IoT devices with little-to-no lag or downtime.

High-bandwidth structured cabling with PoE capability is a must for smart buildings. A widespread wired LAN network is more expensive and labour-intensive than one that uses Wi-Fi connections, but it is significantly more reliable and redundant. Plus, a well-planned wired system is one that can easily add new devices and equipment. A ‘digital ceiling’ design, for example, is a building-wide honeycomb of cabling in the ceiling, with pre-installed connection points where new sensors, switches, devices, and access points can be easily added as the need arises.

Distributed antenna systems increase the speed and reliability of wireless and cellular coverage within a building. While wired cabling provides the most reliable network connection, wireless still has its place, such as connecting a laptop to a projector, or a freestanding IoT device to the network. DAN also boosts cellular signals that might otherwise be weakened by interference or distance from the nearest cell tower. As smartphones become both workplace tools and smart building interface devices, their connectivity also rises in importance.

Physical and digital security

Will your systems still work in case of an emergency? Make sure that your cables and cabling layout meet or exceed all standards for fire, smoke, and general safety. Use cabling structures and organisations that are resistant to damage, and for essential machinery or devices, utilise redundancies and PoE to protect them from sudden power outages.

Relatedly, make sure that your systems and data are regularly backed up, to prevent major data loss in case of an emergency that damages equipment or storage.

Planning and designing for a worst-case scenario will make your smart building network infrastructure more robust overall, and minimize damage in the event that an emergency occurs.

Scalability

Network design for smart buildings needs to be forward-thinking. Just as in a mundane building, the businesses and operations housed within smart buildings are guaranteed to change and evolve over time. New devices and equipment will certainly enter the space, and the space itself may be rearranged through renovations to suit business needs better.

A resilient network infrastructure has the connectivity to easily incorporate new devices, as well as redundancies that both enhance the stability of the network and make it easier to rearrange components if necessary at a future date.

The technology for smart buildings didn’t exist 10 years ago; in another 10 years new IT techniques and technologies will be here to change things. Smart building network infrastructure needs to be comprehensive and cohesive, but not so rigid that it can’t respond to technological advances.

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