Less is more

This article first featured in Inside_Networks in October 2018

Our industry has been talking about the importance of converged networks for as long as I can remember and yes, progress has certainly been made educating the market. But I’m sorry to say that we can’t put the issue to bed just yet.

HARD SELL

The main problem holding back the success of the converged network is understandable: those who are constructing our buildings are ultimately not the ones occupying them. One is focused on the up-front delivery, whereas the people who inhabit the building are the ones who experience and maintain it.

Cost will always be a focus when constructing a building. Always. And hand in hand with cost is the pace of delivery. So, you can see why consultants will be happy for tried and tested contractors to deliver their own parts of the puzzle with their own networks in order to expedite delivery.

These contractors have successfully delivered it this way before, and the model has worked fine for years. Therefore, it’s a hard sell for consultants to risk adding complications to a build process when the focus is on efficient and cost-effective delivery when the current method works ‘fine’.

But ‘fine’ isn’t good enough.

RISKY BUSINESS

This can lead to a myriad of networks that, at best, will hold back innovation, and at worse, pose security risks due to them being more difficult to manage and monitor.

So, let’s start with security. By having multiple networks (each for different functions) you have little knowledge of their quality, performance or what they’re really up to. Imagine you moved into a new home and you have multiple separate networks built upon trust. There’s one for your TV, one for computers, one for smart home devices – each installed by different people. One may have used a high-quality Wi-Fi device patched, and with passwords changed securely. Another may have bought a cheap router with known security holes.

The trouble is, you just don’t know. Straight away with multiple networks you’re going to have issues getting your devices to talk to each, and you don’t truly know what’s going on. Then a year down the line you could find out that there’s another network for your home security system that you didn’t even know existed! It’s a simplistic example, but I just want to illustrate a point: why would you accept such lack of control and visibility in your own building?

TRUST ISSUES

There was a story in the media about how a Las Vegas casino had data stolen via a thermometer in a fish tank. Incidents like this are certainly going to cause scepticism and distrust around Internet of Things (IOT) enabled devices. But this is a problem that will face all networks – legitimate and illegitimate devices will be brought on to the network and with each one comes a degree of security risk.

The initial instinct may be that separate networks are surely better, in that they can contain and minimise more risks, but consider that HMS Titanic took this approach of isolation (with separate airtight containers that were meant to contain breaches), and we know all know how that turned out….

All you’re doing is introducing network complications that will likely give you a lack of visibility and blind you to potential risks across multiple networks. You aren’t going to have an IT team for each network, so you’re not going to get the optimal, proper oversight from your team.

IN THE KNOW

One of my colleagues told me about an incident where a link to a building management system (BMS) was severed shortly after the building was opened, but as the occupants had no idea of what should and shouldn’t be there, they didn’t notice its lack of presence for some time. The system was operating in the background, with no supervision. No one realised for ages as the system ‘just worked’ – but that’s no way to operate a secure, smart building.

The fact is you can’t secure against what you don’t know about.

One unified network allows IT teams to take a proactive, completely clear, centralised approach to security. They can lock it down, continually monitor and know exactly what the network’s doing. They can spot anything out of the ordinary, whether that’s abnormal traffic from a PC, part of the network disappearing – or even a rogue fish tank thermometer.

The thermometer story won’t be the last we hear of incidents like this, but we also mustn’t let it detract from the obvious benefits that the IoT will bring to the smart building landscape.

UP TO SPEED

The insight and control that these systems offer means that by not embracing these technologies, some buildings will simply be left behind. Research by Memoori indicates that that growth in smart building connected devices will be driven by commercial real estate – from approximately 710m devices in 2015 to almost 3700 million by 2021.

That’s staggering growth and think of all the data that can be gained from a typical building – power use, occupancy, traffic patterns, security, lighting and environmental control figures. There is a wealth of information that will improve occupant satisfaction and optimise building operation.

Importantly, much of this will be driven by the interconnected nature of IoT. Smart lighting and environmental control will never truly be that smart if it can’t utilise data on the building’s occupancy patterns, and isn’t able to adapt resources accordingly. For that, you need them to speak to each other – so keeping things in isolation simply won’t work.

BRAVE HEART

Whether the motivations are tenant attraction, legislation or driving down costs, a smart building can only be smart if you understand what it’s doing, and how you can improve it. Now I’m not going to spin yarns of doom and gloom about ‘the old way’ of doing things, but I come back to the point – is ‘fine’ good enough for what we want to achieve?
The focus on security is increasing as more and more stories about high profile attacks hit the news. And for us to gain the significant benefits to be reaped from the IOT, we should aim higher. Those smart IoT devices are coming, and we need to ensure our networks are ready. So what’s stopping us?

We still don’t know everything there is to know about smart buildings. It’s still an evolving market, and I think there can be some hesitation on technologies that may be perceived as unproven or too bleeding edge. But consultants need to be brave in pushing forward smart building technologies.

BACK TO BASICS

End clients need to be more informed – to encourage the consultants – but also be understanding that sometimes there may be some unknowns right now, and yes, it may mean more upfront cost. But they also need to take a long-term view, of the operational expenditure and performance of the building that will ultimately be gained.

Then those of us in the industry need to continue to learn, to innovate and spread the word. To come together with all parts of the delivery chain to ensure that we collectively learn, and can collectively deliver on all the potential benefits that smart buildings will bring. But for all of that to work, we also need to go back to basics. We need to understand the benefits of converged networks and ensure they are considered an integral part of any forward-thinking project.

STRONG FOUNDATIONS

Even if you don’t have every part of your smart building strategy nailed down, a converged network will give it a foundation to build and evolve that strategy now, and in the future.