Compiled by Benjamin Brits

With the continual advancement of cloud offerings, the internet, connectivity, and data, it would not be unrealistic to have truly integrated systems to not only create smart buildings, but smart cities and countries – and that future is here now.

Diverse building management system (BMS) solutions exist! This statement may get some wondering, but the reality is that modern day technology is already capable of so much more – all that was really needed is a means for all components to ‘speak the same language’.

Now, to make that happen is not entirely simple because components are made by different companies, and historically each company had a certain methodology or language they want their components to use, making the ultimate goal more complex to achieve.

Today, driven by the demands of the end users, integration capability is practically a must, and will leave those companies not stepping into the future now, behind. What has changed in a big way is the mindset of the people using the building, or the building owners – they want to use technology and see how the building is working, and if everything is running as efficiently as possible.

Buildings of the future will already prepare the indoor climate based on several data points such as weather patterns and even individual preference. Iamge credit: Benjamin Child | Unsplash

Impact of digital strategies

For many, a digital strategy or digital migration continues to be nothing more than an item on the ‘to-do list’ and is also a budget agenda item that is regularly bypassed. Because this technology has evolved at such a fast pace, it would be reasonable to assume that many people don’t understand the significance of a digital transition, and therefore their perception of this important strategy becomes highly neglected.

This inaction, however, will ultimately result in inefficiency, or being left with little option but to try to retrofit which is a lot  more costly.

As a simple explanation, a digital strategy is the adoption of (various) technologies to increase efficiency and optimise performance. This strategy can be applied to mechanical systems, processing, manufacturing, or entire facilities through the controllers that were discussed in the September issue of the RACA Journal, as well as the advancement of sensors and wireless connectivity.

This functionality enables forward thinkers to feel more comfortable that their company deploying technology, or their building as the owner, is further looking after the environment by ensuring the most efficient use of available resources and being able to identify in real-time anything affecting that outcome. Everyone then essentially contributes to improving a lower demand, especially in energy consumption for countries like South Africa, by making the smallest adjustments through their BMS.

Function of a building management system

A building management system enables the ability to take data, that is at the mechanical plant level – as an example, and bring that into a visual platform. Historically looking back the terminology here used to be referred as MMI, or man machine interface while new technology is referred as GUI, or graphical user interface and incorporates the latest trends in UX, or user experience.

Visual representation of what is happening with any plant or system is always easier and quicker to make sense of, and so the function of a BMS is to be able to bring in data from the field in whatever form it exists there, and translate that data in a format that is usable for the client or user.

The complexity comes in when you want to have a look at data from systems other than the HVAC for instance. This would include data from a fire detection system, the water system, an intrusion detection system, lighting systems, digital services and so on – all of which can feed into the building management system.

In order to get all these different pieces of data together, a protocol translator or converter was required, as the way data is generated and used varies greatly between industries. This is the ‘different languages’ alluded to earlier. Having to deal with multiple protocols led to the development of what is known today as JACE or EC BOS which allowed all these different protocols to come together. They further allowed mapping and tagging of data as well as metadata addition (specific component detail for easy identification). These devices essentially ‘flatten’ the data coming in from various systems to the BMS, and thus produce a ‘common language’ platform to apply any logic to.

The progression of BMS was accelerated dramatically by the introduction of this ability to ‘flatten data’ from multiple systems into the IP language that most people are familiar with and that is already widely used in many applications.

BMS evolution

When building management systems were first invented in the 1960s, the format started out with a simple computer running proprietary software, talking to a single fixed controller. Over the decades they developed and progressed to the point where integration became possible through the translator/converter devices.

Such newer technology was known as ‘black boxes’ or the EC BOS already mentioned, enabling an arsenal of information (and control where applicable) around not only the major systems within a building, but they could also include integration of other systems – all from the convenience of an office desk or remote location.

The improvements in technology reached individual components and field controllers incorporating IP language directly. This meant that data was already flattened, and so eliminates the need for the converter/translator boxes that brought different systems together to the BMS. Controllers having the ability to flatten the data themselves opened the door to communicate directly up to a supervisor software, or the viewing data platform (BMS).

A BMS then essentially became the ecosystem that contained all the information associated with connected aspects of the building and all the sub system parameters that could be monitored (and controlled where applicable).

BMS004Ransom cyber attacks are the most common security risks today for businesses.Ransom cyber attacks are the most common security risks today for businesses. Image credit: Markus Spiske | Unsplash

Then came the announcement of the fourth industrial revolution and systems across the board started evolving as people wanted to be able to not only take information from a building management system, but they also wanted to be able to take information from multiple sources.

As these systems started maturing with the ability to take data from these multiple sources, the world started trending towards comparing data sets and this produced really great outcomes. These included aspects such as energy savings, system efficiency, understanding carbon footprints and even predictive actions based on for example the expected weather forecast in upcoming days. Monitoring of changing temperature conditions during the day also became possible.

With the addition of predictive algorithms for example, this would enable buildings to be pre-cooled or heated in anticipation of a cold front or heat wave respectively over the period. This however did, and still does, require accurate data inputs.

Today, through the internet of things (IoT) these BM systems can manage various processes and influence each other based on set criteria or occurrences. Also, the advancement of the use of cloud systems has further expanded a BMS’ capability and participation in the bigger scheme of things. Now buildings themselves have become data points too. Here a new protocol has been developed known as MQTT – the standard for IoT messaging, which in a nutshell defines the rules of engagement between the cloud and any edge or disconnected device. This new protocol, and the technical specialists/skills to be able to incorporate it, has become a part of the growth and improvement of the built industry that is known to be a large contributor in demand for heating and cooling and thus energy.

In South Africa currently there is a mixture of these systems where the old technology through JACE or EC BOS is installed and the newer technology, which already has IP capability and IoT functionality. The result though, is that all the data transferred ends up on the IP platform.

Risk and security

Having a building connected to the internet introduces an element of risk through exposure to security concerns that could be simple, such as someone accessing a system and fiddling with various comfort settings – or total system shutdowns. The importance of being aware of this factor should be right at the top of the list for a digital building strategy when you consider the total asset values in buildings being up to hundreds of millions to billions (depending on the facility/activities). This is known as security methodology.

To manage this risk there is a layer of hardware and encryption that can be added into the BMS level such as a TOSIBOX, which is a device that allows you to connect your internet connection (that connects your building) to the world. Anyone that want to connect into your building must have a specific encryption key to be able to access the BMS, and so this takes away the possibility that people can gain unauthorised access and mess around with the system.

Security risk today is a real situation that proves itself over and over as we have seen recently with the shutdown of the Transnet Port Terminals throughout the country. These situations may occur through simple frivolous activity, individuals or groups looking to make a buck, or in extreme cases where purposeful malicious damage is done. An example here is a recent breach of an automated manufacturing facility where access to the system was gained, a setting was changed by a mere half a degree on a particular component that resulted in a failure of an entire shift’s output when it came to the quality control point. Now although these situations are quite rare, they do exist and so security should be a priority.

The recent ‘hack’ at the state-owned Transnet, is an alarming reminder of how cyber security has elbowed its way near the top of the list of facility risks. The threat was serious enough to take the firm offline for over a week and to invoke the force majeure clause on its contracts.

Ransomware attacks are the fastest growing form of cybercrime in the world. They happen through the infiltration by malicious software of a computer or network. The aim is to limit or restrict access to critical data by encrypting files – effectively locking them – until a ransom is paid.

There is one ransomware attack every 11 seconds globally. That’s roughly each time you finish reading one of these paragraphs. The average downtime after each attack is 21 days. This depends on whether the ransom is paid or not. Ransoms are much maligned in public, but routinely paid in private cases.

Criminal syndicates generally target ‘big fish’ to secure sizeable ransom payments. In South Africa, this includes large, listed companies and state-owned enterprises. Listed companies tend to be professionally managed, with risk committees routinely addressing cyber-security risks. These committees regularly adopt best of breed mitigation measures such as a special focus on managed services, vulnerability assessments, and contingency plans should an incident occur.

BMS003Building management today can even be access from any smart device. Iamge credit: Onur Binay | Unsplash

Building management vs building automation vs smart buildings

When a system is specified, the consultant or engineer needs to understand what the client’s outcome requirement is because this affects how a system should be built to respond accordingly – are they simply looking at monitoring and reporting or are they looking for automatic action to be implemented. Will the client be looking at protection or loss management, monitoring or management of energy consumption, guidance in terms of carbon footprint, access and tracking of building occupants or automatic climate or zone control, and so on.

Building automation is associated with controlling of the various plants or systems connected to a building and managing this in a cohesive way to provide the necessary outcome, for example energy reduction. This could be illustrated by knowing that someone has booked a boardroom and then automatically switching on the lights and communication devices while measuring and monitoring various temperature inputs to pre-prepare the room to be slightly warmer or cooler depending on the weather. Then switching everything off when occupants leave.

The BMS is the link between all these separate systems and enables the improvement of user experience, overall efficiency, and the view of the assets performance, and then from all the data and statistics gathered, to introduce improvements over time.

The idea of a smart building links directly to the vast amount of data that now exists in the world. Existing (and accurate data) creates an environment where predictive actions can be applied. Being armed with information, you’re able to take actions that will provide better outcomes. This means that rather than responding to a temperature change when the event occurs, you can respond long before and prepare the building for a temperature shock, as an example. Predictive capabilities come about by using artificial intelligence (AI) to be able to manipulate data that is available to produce a suitable outcome.

One very common misunderstanding of clients is the difference between monitoring and control. It has been seen that the role of digital migration strategy advisor falls in the lap of a company or facility owner’s IT department to implement a smart IoT system, but this is not the correct methodology.

The knowledge base within the BMS industry in terms of a digital migration strategy for a building should be the first point of call. BMS consultants and contractors have the essential knowledge and the ability to make programming logic modifications and incorporate various components and systems far beyond the scope of an IT department. This further avoids problems before they are even created. Building management systems and digital migration should be seen squarely within the realm of the respective consultants and contractors.

A look to the future

The minute you migrate to a digital solution and implement a building management system, by the nature of technology, you should connect to the cloud. As technology develops, your stand-alone operating systems become obsolete over time and will eventually no longer be supported by the developers. However, cloud computing, as the future, continually offers the latest solutions and options and is suited to the exact needs of the client or application.

Open solutions have also created a platform for data analysis and comparison from all over the world in order to feed data to AI-connected systems to be able to gather and evaluate the best possible outcomes for a particular system. These include system stress, imminent breakdowns, and management of components in such a case as well as notice in advance of maintenance or replacement needs.

Looking towards the idea of smart buildings and cities of the future BMS together with personal smart devices, tracking, predictive inputs and even connected transportation systems will enable mind blowing situations. Look out for the time that your car will tell you exactly where to park in the basement, your cell phone proximity will grant you access to your meeting in a building while guiding you to the exact room booked, and your watch will tell the building your current and preferred comfort temperature and ensure the room’s climate suits. Exciting to think about the future indeed!


  1. Carel Controls
  2. Danfoss South Africa
  3. Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town
  4. iLED (Pty) Ltd – a member of i4 Group
  5. MQTT
  6. Science Direct

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