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What Is Green IT? Part 2: Converging with the Shadow Network

How do you define "Green IT?" Growth is driving global trends in resource depletion, air and water pollution, energy consumption, and climate change. A third of U.S. energy consumption comes from commercial buildings. Businesses are automating those buildings to reduce costs and emissions. Will IT lead, or follow, the coming change? This is the second in a two-part series on IT's role in solving energy and environmental problems.

In part 1 of this series, we gave an overview of three areas where IT can have a green impact on a company's energy and emissions: start with the data center; manage desktop energy use; and enable mobility.

The shadow network

IT departments operate in an environment surrounded by sophisticated data acquisition, analysis, and networking systems, of which IT itself is largely unaware.

Building automation systems are the brains of commercial and industrial buildings that control their own environments. The benefits of building automation -- energy savings, improved occupant comfort, added security and safety, reduced maintenance costs -- are all at the top of the list for building owners.

Building automation systems (BAS), such as lighting and temperature controls, are common in larger facilities. Energy management systems (EMS) go farther, centralizing the control of lighting, heating, ventilating, and air conditioning with the goal of reducing the energy those systems consume.

Almost every campus (corporate, medical or academic) has an EMS, as do 40 percent of the Fortune 100. Manufacturers have adopted automation for efficiency, and those industrial systems are now being leveraged to reduce energy consumption.

Building systems converge

Groups of vendors have begun to think about how the EMS and IT worlds should converge. The concepts center around removing the long-standing wall between building networks and IT (tenant) networks. Mixed into this dialog are other low-profile systems common in most buildings, such as security, air quality and life safety.

Cisco has approached the building controls industry with the notion that information is the "fourth utility" after electricity, gas and water. They propose moving EMS to the IP network, not only for efficiency, but also for the information synergies involved. Business information has a strategic and tactical value, and information about the building's performance is no different.

Protocols are one of the stumbling blocks. Building systems operate on largely special-purpose open systems (such as BACnet or LonWorks), and a few proprietary systems remain popular.

Both types of systems can talk to the IP network today through gateways. Within the last few years, the building-control industry has discovered XML. Middleware applications gather information and normalize it for consumption by ERP, accounting, and other enterprise applications.

NOC, meet BOC

Moving EMS to the IT network could have additional benefits for building operations, such as less wiring, more common operator skills, fewer hardware platforms, and less system maintenance.

The network operations center merges with the building operations center -- if not physically, virtually.

There are drawbacks. EMS is a mature technology with sophisticated functionality. In short, it's not broken, and many people wonder how much of a setback would befall these systems in a move to IP. Meanwhile, IT departments wonder about the security of these components that have enjoyed the safety of isolation for so long. Property managers, observing the frequency of network failures, hesitate to depend on IT for really critical applications, such as fire alarms.

Another drawback is the difference in horsepower required. For example, wireless technologies are common in building automation retrofits, where low-power, low-speed mesh networks operate thousands of sensors and controls. But IT's version of wireless -- Wi-Fi -- is cumbersome and energy-inefficient for such applications.

Telephony went through a similar experience. Early enterprise VoIP systems lacked basic functions that we had come to take for granted. And in that case many companies learned it was the data network that was underpowered. That led to redundant networks, which bit into the cost savings.

Related articles:

"Building Control and Data Technologies Show Signs of Convergence" -- an information-rich backgrounder on this arena

"ConnectivityWeek 2007 Insight: Cisco Connected Roundtable" -- Cisco interview (podcast)

"Cisco Connected Real Estate" -- company white paper -- summary

"BuilConn 2006 Brings Value of Connectivity to Light"

The convergence business case

Early adopters of NOC-BOC convergence are reporting that they have reduced cabling and other networking infrastructure costs by more than half. It's not the data network routers and switches that are being cut. Instead, from an IT perspective, they serve more purposes and thereby deliver more value.

From an EMS perspective, this poses an understandable threat. Those early adopters are reporting a 30 percent reduction in head count for building operations. They are using IT resources to monitor all four utilities in real time, round the clock. Systems respond automatically to alerts and electronically dispatch maintenance calls.

Overall, proponents are setting expectations of 15 percent energy savings from the convergence of building systems with information systems.

For an installation at the State of Missouri, the annual savings are in the $16 million range. If we continue to see evidence like that, then IT won't have to ask for a role in building operations -- management will be knocking at the data center door.