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Are Commercial Buildings Ready for Open-Source Energy Management?

openlynxPicture the lighting and chillers of commercial buildings being controlled by a system designed in the same way as Mozilla’s Firefox — through open source, the collaborative method of developing software source code. While we’ve covered open source-based home area energy management systems, the OpenLynx project, started by Anno Scholten, vice president of business development for NovusEdge, is looking to tackle the underlying software that controls the energy consumption of massive commercial buildings.

On the expo floor of the Connectivity Week conference in Santa Clara, Calif., on Tuesday, Scholten plans to show off a demo of the project’s first application built on OpenLynx: a smart meter reading service implemented in 26 commercial buildings by a company in Washington, D.C. Scholten told us after a roundtable talk on Monday that this first application will help prove the open-source building automation technology. On June 22, OpenLynx plans to launch the next version of the source code, available here.

How can open source help commercial building energy management? Scholten started the project about a year ago to help bring collaboration and innovation to the building automation industry, which he says is “limited by the small number of gateway technologies available and [has] no common development platform to the next level.” The building automation industry, controlled by large companies like Siemens (s SI), Johnson Controls (s JCI) and Honeywell (s HON), has created automation technologies that work well on their own but largely live in silos (each one is based on a different non-compatible platform) and for the most part, don’t rely on the common language of Internet Protocol. Scholten says the next step for the building automation industry is to take a cue from the IT industry and develop open-source projects like Asterisk (an open-source version of a standard telephone network).

Peter Michalek, who has been working on OpenLynx for a few months, pointed out in the talk on Monday that open source can bring down the costs of the energy management systems dramatically and can make them more advanced, because they will be built on already-established basics. He said the licensing agreement of OpenLynx is “liberal,” explaining that a developer can do anything s/he wants with it, but has to publish the benefits created back into the system. Karsten Wade, the self-described community gardener for Red Hat’s open-source community, who also sat on the roundtable, says the benefits of open source include reducing the total cost of ownership and enabling user-driven innovation.

Above all, the development of open-source tools for the commercial building automation industry suggests how valuable the energy information housed in these commercial buildings has suddenly become. IT companies want to manage it, using the tools they’ve spent years building (see Adura Technologies). As the panelists pointed out, the lighting, thermostat and HVAC energy information from commercial buildings used to only be seen by the building manager, but as the smart grid gets built out, energy information needs to be pulled outside of the building walls. Utilities are looking to provide rebates for commercial demand response, and companies are looking to cut energy to meet regulations and save money. As this shift happens the easiest way to release the information is through already established standard protocols.

Will building automation firms actually embrace open source OpenLynx? Not likely, at least for a very long time. There are hurdles ahead, such as just getting the word out to interested developers in a new market, as well as making sure products are high enough quality with compliance testing and certification. The incumbents won’t likely be too keen with the project, either. Scholten writes:

I expect there will be many who will dismiss open source as low quality developments not suitable for commercial deployment in mission critical facility systems. I also think that some will feel threatened by the disruptive nature of open-source developments and believe that their current technologies provide better capabilities than any first generation open source solutions. This is also what Avaya, Northern Telecom and others thought when Digium released their first generation PBX based on open source Asterisk.

But the OpenLynx project will have an effect on the industry, even if it’s just in terms of ideology. And who knows, maybe it will follow in the footsteps of Firefox, which has been slow to gain market share, but held early mindshare for years. It only takes a few big supporter companies to help spread the word.

16 Responses to “Are Commercial Buildings Ready for Open-Source Energy Management?”

  1. open4energy provides an open source data center energy monitoring solution based on Cacti. I am not saying this to promote us, rather to say that we understand the challenge of open source.

    Although Cacti has been available to do data center energy monitoring for at least 3 years, the number of data centers using it to monitor their energy use is limited indeed. It should come as no surprise that the one company who track the energy cost of releasing software downloads, using cacti, is Mozilla.

    The issue is clearly not in the capabilities. If you look at content management, Drupal has over 7 million web sites, and Apache delivers 49% of all Web sites.

    So what is the issue?

    Well! One large Bay Area corporation said “the energy cost of our data center, relative to our other costs, is simply too low to justify the human effort of a solution.” Ouch!

    But they were right, energy, when compared to other business costs, is simply too low on the cost totem pole for the average CFO to pay much attention.

    So yes, we are paying lip service to the need to be energy efficient, but until the issue is legislated, or the costs go up to the point it is a factor along with health care and other employee issues, it seems that open source will be an honest reflection of the REAL (rather than market hyped) interest in energy solutions.

  2. Re: Alex – standard protocols are not open source – they are implemented in proprietary systems, and the standards are often ‘enhanced’ by a manufacturer (if not just interpreted differently), which can cause headaches for any other mfg. on the same network.

    Yes, Niagara can glue anybodies anything together, but you had to pay for the license, and you must use the framework to develop the machine & human interfaces.

  3. Has anyone had a chance to find and download the OpenLynx source code? I tried browsing the CVS repository via SourceForge, and there doesn’t appear to be anything there. Nor does a Google search turn up anything useful. I suppose the proper forum for this sort of question is the forum at SourceForge, but the only activity there are a couple of messages saying “where is the source code?” (see Is any of the OpenLynx source code available to the public, and if so, where?

  4. Great article on the round table, it was very informative being there. If anyone is interested in hearing how and why open source has revolutionized IT, I have the presentation slides plus full notes available here:

    Regarding the uphill battle and open protocols, it is hard to beat the ubiquity of IP. There will be ways to solve and interoperate. The main silo effect that Anno was discussing was not in the open systems installed in buildings. It was the proprietary software and remaining proprietary devices in buildings.

    There is a very clear set of reasons why open source has gained so much ground and is winning so many battles. FIrefox is literally the tip of the iceberg. Linux is by magnitudes the dominant operating system on embedded devices. Server share is significant. The consumer desktop/laptop market is just barely beginning.

    The same circumstances that have made open source so dominant in IT are present in building automation. From my perspective outside looking in, it is only a matter of time before open solutions replace the closed ones, with time being on the side of the open source efforts.

  5. 4smartgrid


    Do you think companies like Google should shift focus to commercial buildings with their push for open/free platform for energy management? Their focus on residential market is missing out the 40% of total energy buildings consume. Perhaps they could make bigger impact by pushing for open source in commercial arena.

  6. The building automation industry, controlled by large companies like Siemens, Johnson Controls and Honeywell, have created automation technologies that work well on their own but largely live in silos (each one is based on a different non-compatible platform) and mostly don’t rely on the common language of Internet Protocol.

    Building automation controls have been moving to standard protocols for at least ten years now. Many support LON or BACnet now. Tridium can also glue many differenet systems together.

    These guys will have a long uphill battle to get any market share. By the time they get up and running with a product, I don’t think there will be a need for another open protocol.