Why the Future Holds More Clouds and Better Visibility for Buildings

How can you have more clouds and greater visibility? It's easy, when the clouds are internet data centers hosting the next generation of energy and sustainability management software.

Cloud computing, and the software as a service (SaaS) commercial model, have become the next big thing in technology and offer a number of advantages to organizations seeking to update their energy and sustainability information management platform (which is often a spreadsheet). A number of large and small companies have introduced new software (actually, services) in the last year that target industry needs for data management, visualization and analysis.

The cloud/SaaS model is popular because it is paid for as a monthly service, instead of a large capital investment. If you aren't getting the value you expect from the service, stop paying and it stops working. There are other advantages, such as automated updates, online support and online user communities. You can also access cloud-based applications from any internet-enabled device.

We did some "day in the life" studies of building operators a few years back and found more than a few traditional operator workstations sitting on top of file cabinets, located on desks without chairs or powered down completely. Today's facility managers and building operators are constantly on the move, interacting with their building systems in real-time using smart phones, tablets and pagers -- sometimes all at once. Cloud-computing is perfect for this kind of dynamic interaction.

It is important to remember that technology is an enabler and not an end unto itself. It is only useful if it helps people and organizations achieve their goals. Goals can be saving energy, reducing cost or enhancing comfort. They can also include reducing carbon emissions, improving productivity or increasing asset value. Whatever the goal, the technology should make it faster, easier and less expensive to achieve.

The next generation of energy and sustainability software does this in three primary ways through data integration, visualization and analysis. In terms of data integration, one challenge is the fact that needed data is buried within a variety of legacy, non-connected systems. Almost all systems now have some kind of interface to the internet or support a communications standard that allows data to be transferred back and forth between systems and applications. While these software interfaces aren't quite plug-and-play (they're often more like plug-and-pray), they are becoming increasingly more common and provide the basis for system and enterprise-level data integration and consolidation into a single unified database.

The second area of advancement is data visualization. Once we have our systems and data integrated, we then have to display it in meaningful ways by converting data into tangible information and insight. Dashboards and portals have become standard ways for organizations to view and report financial and operational data. They will also become standard for viewing and reporting energy and sustainability data. While this work has traditionally been done by facility and energy managers, today's new systems allow more casual or specialized users to access the same data with easy-to-use tools. One of the more exciting new applications is the ability to give building tenants visibility into their own energy usage, indexed to the size of their space or hours of operation, and compared to their peers. This kind of web-based application is currently being made available to tenants in the newly renovated Empire State Building.

The final area of innovation is advanced data analytics. Now that we have terabytes of data streaming into the cloud from multiple systems, why should we burden building operators and others with the need to sift through that data to find a problem? One of my colleagues likes to say, "Don't force busy people to look at good data." Instead, we can use data analytics to constantly monitor system and building performance, using statistical and rule-based methods, and automatically identify areas of concern. Once potential problems are isolated and prioritized, facility managers can use all of the tools at their disposal to further diagnose and correct them.

There is a lot of talk about smart buildings these days, but we have to remember that analysis is really the key to turning data into meaningful insight and action. Having the newest software applications and integrated systems is great, but only if the technology is used by people who have the ability to recognize that insight and take action. It is only through taking action that real performance improvements can be made.

New cloud-based applications provide a convenient way to integrate, visualize and analyze building energy and sustainability data. The good news, or bad news depending on your perspective, is that these new applications will let you, and your boss, know exactly how well you are doing in meeting your organization's goals.

Photo of glass-walled building and clouds via Shutterstock.