The Facility Technologist: Cloud Era Buildings

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By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the May 2012 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

There is so much hype about cloud technologies lately that it’s no surprise facility managers (fms) are confused about what it really means. In the simplest form, the cloud uses the Internet to access remote computing resources. These resources can be software, hardware, or data storage.

There are various combinations of local- and cloud-based resources, and most cloud era buildings will use both. Best of all, geography is not a limiting factor anymore. Because the Internet is ubiquitous and robust, fms can access a server across the country just the same as one right next door. And the prevalence of HTML, the language of the Internet, means most software can be accessed with a web browser.

The following story should help explain the concept better. A very large real estate development firm recently started construction on its corporate headquarters in Chicago. Leading the development team was a senior managing director who intended to offer occupants and visitors a new level of convenience and seamless interoperability driven by advanced technologies. His goal was to “set the market” in this new HQ.

Realizing that traditional building technologies would not bring his vision to fruition, he hired the company I work for, SDI. By introducing concepts never before seen in commercial real estate, our design team set out to challenge some of the long held, but often restrictive views of the A/E community. We leveraged the latest in cloud technologies in order to enable capabilities that traditional systems could never achieve—thereby creating the new standard the client wanted.

One crucial technology deployed was the visitor management system to register and track visitors. But traditional visitor management systems have some drawbacks because of their architecture. For example, users cannot access them securely off site without implementing a costly and complex Virtual Private Network (VPN). They must also buy client software to load on the computer and access the system. These two factors limit the ability for users to manage the system from home or while traveling, both of which were important to this client.

Consequently, we selected a cloud-based visitor management system that could pre-register visitors through a web interface which was accessible from any browser or mobile device. Now when visitors arrive, they check themselves in through a self-service kiosk by swiping their ID (e.g. driver’s license or state ID). The kiosk reads and validates their ID by comparing printed data on the face of the card with encoded data on the mag stripe to detect counterfeit IDs. After accepting the ID, the kiosk issues the badge and contacts the “host” to let him or her know the visitor has arrived. This system is housed remotely by the vendor, so the building just pays a monthly fee. This system also communicates with an access control server inside the building to sync identities.

In our visioning sessions, one extremely important aspect of building management was addressed: the interaction of occupants with building management staff. In the traditional building, someone answers phone calls regarding requests for services and provides information about the building and the neighborhood. For this building, a web-based portal was designed to provide news and information, allow occupants to manage their smart card funding account, and accept requests for building services. For example, maintenance, repairs, and special cleaning service requests can be submitted through the portal. This dramatically reduces the effort required to disseminate information and manage requests. Occupants like this approach because they can get immediate answers to questions, can see the progress of their requests, and can access the system from anywhere. Responses have been overwhelmingly positive.

The client wanted occupants to be able to use a single card not only for access control, but also for making purchases in the building’s cafe. To do this, we started by using smart cards because of their ability to store data and maintain multiple identities on a single card. The cards do this by using “sectors” of data stored on the card. Each sector is a separate silo of information that essentially acts like its own card. This allows a single card to be read by multiple systems, even when each system uses a different ID number for the card. Then we purchased a point of sale (POS) system that used hybrid cloud architecture. Part of the software is housed at the vendor and part is locally on cash registers. The vendor manages the package remotely, so there is no local administration.

Mobile access is one key benefit of the cloud era building. With our design for this building, managers can view video cameras from home or from other offices to see what’s happening when they are away. Security staff members use wireless tablet computers that allow them to monitor all building systems. So instead of being tied to a desk, they are very mobile and can interact with occupants and visitors while still having access to—and control over—the building.

While cloud computing sounds great (and it is!) there are challenges to consider. First, there’s the undeniable fact that cloud computing requires fast and reliable Internet connectivity. Many cloud technology providers build in a certain amount of tolerance for network downtime; for example, some systems have some local cached data that allows them to operate for short periods without Internet connectivity. But when that is down, systems are down.

The other challenge is long-term cost. While monthly payments are only a fraction of the cost of buying hardware and software, they do add up; thus, long-term costs will be somewhat higher. This is often countered by the fact that payments can be considered operational expenses instead of capital expenses, which can translate into tax advantages.

As cloud technologies transform our lives, fms will be under pressure to provide more service and accessibility. Building occupants have become used to online access, seamless integration between systems, and the ability to work from anywhere, not just their desks. So if cloud computing is new to you, then do some research. Just add “cloud-based” to queries for any kinds of systems, and you’ll get plenty of results. Spend time looking at products and reading white papers on the subject, and pretty soon, your head will be in the clouds too!

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