The Facility Technologist: Facility Technology Convergence

By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the May 2004 issue of
Today’s Facility Manager

There is a major change underfoot in facility technologies, and all strategically poised facility professionals need to be aware of it. No single advance in recent years has had as immediate and sweeping an impact on such a broad range of innovations as the convergence of multiple technologies onto digital data networks.

More and more, facility technologies that used to be stand-alone systems (often with proprietary wiring systems) are now being redesigned to work over data networks. For many years, data networks were used almost exclusively for transferring computer files to and from servers and desktop computers (and before that, from mainframes to terminals).

The explosion of the Internet has helped to fuel data network development, which has resulted in new equipment and transmission protocols capable of much greater speeds. As these systems became more affordable and widespread, electronics manufacturers became aware of the many advantages of these data networks and began modifying their systems to use them instead of separate cabling systems.

Now, instead of needing several wiring infrastructures running through a facility, a single high capacity data network can suffice. The advantages are obvious: less expense because of fewer cabling runs, ease of management and maintenance, and the tremendous data capacity that these systems now afford.

Here are a few of the systems that can run on top of a single data network:

Voice Over IP (VOIP). These systems provide telephone service over data networks. (For more on VOIP, visit the “Tech To Watch” archives.)

A VOIP phone looks and works just like a regular office telephone, but with some distinct advantages. A VOIP phone can be moved to another location, and the system will still know where that phone is and route phone calls to it automatically. This is a real boost to facility professionals who manage moves. An employee need only take his or her phone to the new location, and calls follow the phone. So there is no more re-patching phone wires or reprogramming the PBX. Also, VOIP phones can evolve into many other capabilities that regular phones cannot. For example, Cisco’s new VOIP systems have a video phone capability that is incredibly easy to use. In fact, the system knows if the phone being called is video capable and automatically connects users. Otherwise, it just works like a regular phone.

Building Automation Control Systems. All of the major building automation systems (BAS) now offer equipment that operates over data networks. An additional benefit is the fact that a system called Power over Ethernet provides low voltage power through the data cabling, powering sensors, and other small electronic devices without separate power supplies.

Audio/Video Equipment. These standard conference room technologies now use Internet Protocol (IP) rather than coax cabling to transmit their signals. These systems offer remarkable clarity, more efficient signal transfer, and the advantage of being easily recordable on computer disk, since they are already in digital format.

The advantages are clear-digital data networks are less expensive because users need fewer cabling infrastructures. As a result, savings are realized on installation as well as maintenance costs. Also, data network systems are more flexible. They can accommodate a wide range of systems on the same cabling, and facility executives can add new systems without increasing the physical wires. Power over Ethernet can power low voltage devices with no separate electrical supply, eliminating yet another cabling system.

So what does this mean for facility professionals? First and foremost, they need to learn some basics about these systems.

An introductory book on network technologies (there are several of those Dummies books on networks and TCP/IP that are fairly good) is an excellent place to learn some of the basics. Remember, the IT staff is probably not thinking as much about a long-term strategy for facility technologies, so facility managers need to take the lead in this area.

Be aware that, with all of these systems running on a single data network, “all of your eggs are in one basket.” Spend the money to get good equipment and make darn sure redundant systems have been provided. Like all equipment, one day the digital system could fail. (If you think I’m being too paranoid, just imagine if your phones, security, video, and HVAC systems came to a crashing halt all at the same time. Not a pretty picture, is it?)

Before investing in these systems, don’t assume an existing network has the required capacity. This is a tricky area, and a network specialist is required. (I’d recommend a certified professional like a CCNA or CCDP.) Some network equipment may be outdated, even if it’s just a few years old.

Even in the case when technology is new, many facilities have overstressed their networks by failing to install sufficient capacity. This can be disastrous, because switches and routers will slow down exponentially as load is added. When this happens, the system may be fine one day and unusually slow the next after only a small additional load.

Cabling may not be up to the task. Many facilities still have CAT5 cabling, which is not sufficient for running a number of new, high bandwidth systems like video, VOIP, and the other examples mentioned here. Even CAT5E is becoming obsolete in the face of all these new systems. CAT7 is highly recommended for the latest systems. This high capacity cabling will allow facility executives to run these systems today and still have some room to grow for future systems. (For those of you who might be upgrading to new cabling-or installing in a new facility-the incremental extra cost of CAT7 is nothing compared to the long-term advantages.)

It won’t be too long before fiber optic cabling will be delivered to every desktop, but that’s probably down the road a bit. The cost is still rather high, and there just isn’t a need for that much bandwidth at the average desk.

Like every other facility technology, wires just aren’t what they used to be-they keep evolving. But with a little planning and a few good decisions, it is possible to charm the cabling snake.

Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Managementtextbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, andreliability of client business through technology.