Building Operating Management

Commanding Web-Speak

Growing Internet use among facility systems demands a New Understanding of IT terms, concepts and language

By Rita Tatum   Building Automation

HTML, XML, SOAP, Java, .NET: Terms once contained within the IT world are now entering facility management. Because of the Internet’s popularity and the Web’s great potential for facility executives, the terms are showing up as attributes in both building automation systems (BAS) and facilities management software systems.

The leading BAS communication protocols, BACnet and LonMark, both are working to incorporate XML into their Web capabilities. In addition, computer aided facilities management (CAFM), computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) and others are moving to the Web. And, as they do, terms and details once reserved for the information technology department are finding their way into the facility executive’s office. So what do these IT-sounding terms and acronyms mean? Well, they are a collection of terms, so it’s best to first divide them into software platforms — Java and .NET — and then look at the standards that support them — SOAP, HTML and XML.

Platforms First

Java and .NET are pure software platforms. They run on top of other hardware-based software platforms, such as Windows, Linux, Solaris and Mac. Java is a Sun Microsystems platform and many facility executives are familiar with it in Netscape Web services. Microsoft is behind .NET, which is familiar to those using Internet Explorer to navigate the Web. Both have XML applications that allow users to connect with applications and data over a network.

Microsoft defines Web services as “small building-block applications that can connect to each other as well as to other, larger applications over the Internet.” In other words, Web services are reusable pieces of software that interact with each other using industry standards. They can be combined with each other and with other applications and smart devices. Both JAVA and .NET are Web services.

The Java platform is composed of the Java Virtual Machine software, which is the base of the Java platform. Provided the computer has Virtual Machine software, the same program written in Java’s language can run on Windows, Solaris or an iMac. Another aspect of the Java platform is the Java Application Programming Interface (API). The Java API is composed of software components that provide many capabilities. Java API is grouped into libraries of related interfaces and classes, called “packages.”

The .NET platform also is a software solution that consists of two parts — the common language runtime and the .NET Framework class library. The first part provides the common services for applications and simplifies writing code by assisting with many tasks such as memory management, security management and error handling. The library has prepackaged functional sets and includes ASP.NET to help in building Web applications and services; Windows forms to assist in smart client user interface development; and ADO.NET to help in connecting applications to databases.

Standard Languages

Although there are other platforms operating on the Internet, Java and .NET are the dominant ones related to Web-based facility management solutions. But once operations move onto the Web via the browser, facility executives encounter another set of IT terms — HTML, XML and SOAP. These three languages are the major ones used in facility management and operations.

HTML: Since 1989, hypertext markup language (HTML) has been the standard text-formatting language of the Web. HTML documents actually are text files with two parts. One part is the content to be reproduced on the computer screen. The second part, often referred to as “markup” or “tag,” is encoded information to direct the presentation and is generally hidden from the user. The tags tell the computer how to respond to actions from the keyboard or mouse.

So a facility executive might click on an HVAC icon and that action might require the tag to ask another piece of software to display a graphical site map of the HVAC system. A tag also may be a link to an address where another document resides, allowing the facility executive to find information quickly and easily by clicking on these links. HTML also has tags for forms to fill out — for example, daily temperature logs or other essential building operations information.

Of course, to view the Web’s information requires a browser, which interprets the HTML markup and formats the content for display on the computer screen.

XML: Extensible markup language (XML) was originally written for electronic publishing. Like HTML, XML is an open standard. In HTML, the tags are defined and fixed. In XML, the tags are extensible, which means vendors can develop their own tags and decide whether they wish to share them with others.

“The markup in XML is in printable characters,” says H. Michael Newman, past chairman of BACnet and currently convenor of BACnet’s XML Working Group. Printable characters are an advantage because they are easily viewed, so it’s less difficult to find problems in the programming.

“However, that is also one of XML’s liabilities,” says Newman, who is manager of the utilities department, computer section, for Cornell University. “It takes more time to send 100 characters than one or two. Consider the number five. It can be represented by one number or three binary digits.”

Sending and receiving such codes takes time and space. That isn’t a problem when sending text materials, as there are few codes. But in complex data transfer situations as commonly encountered in building automation systems, it will be slightly slower to use XML than to send the same programming codes using some other markup alternatives. For most facility applications, the slower speed may not be noticeable.

While HTML is a standard way to exchange documents on the Internet, XML is designed for data interchange and is used to transmit information from one point to another.

SOAP: Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) is a transportation protocol used to carry information on the Internet. Basically, SOAP defines a way to move XML messages from one point to another. This is accomplished via an XML-based message framework. The framework is extensible, flexible enough to operate across a number of network protocols and independent of them. SOAP is important because it is the way Web services like Java and .NET communicate. It is a simple XML messaging solution that can be used over different protocols.

“SOAP is the protocol that encapsulates an object definition in XML,” says Bruce Cox, director of facilities technology for the FM Strategies studio of Little Diversified Architectural Consulting. Using SOAP, an XML function such as turning the lights for an office building on or off can be sent from New York to Amsterdam. It is this SOAP/XML combination that makes the technologies so attractive.

Increased Interest

XML, SOAP and Web services are gathering so much interest that the Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA) formed its XML/Web Services Guideline Committee to work on a guideline for use of Internet communications standards and Web services in facility management. An initial draft of the guideline is planned for early 2004 and is expected to include control and monitoring of HVAC, fire alarm, security, card access, asset management, energy and other facility-related systems and data sources.

“While many building automation providers have begun to implement XML and other Web services, there is currently no uniform approach toward their application with respect to building control systems,” says Paul Ehrlich, chair of the CABA committee and product manager at Trane Global Controls. “The goal of the working group would be to develop uniform guidelines to promote the open, standardized and interoperable application and implementation of these new communication standards.

The use of XML, an open standard managed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), removes barriers to data sharing and software integration. In other words, XML offers some definite benefits for those interested in interoperability. So it’s not surprising that LonMark and BACnet organizations are addressing XML both individually and with CABA.

“The LonMark Interoperability Association has been actively involved with XML for over one year,” says Barry Haaser, executive director. “We have already converted LonMark profiles to XML. We are in the process of creating a document that will be presented to CABA documenting the XML format.”

BACnet’s XML Working Group had its first meeting at Ohio State University in September 2002 and is in the process of defining various application areas for XML technology. “BACnet also is extensible,” says Newman. “In fact, that’s one of its strengths.”

Newman says he believes XML holds great promise, but cautions against viewing it as a panacea. “With XML, there’s still a lot of work to do. With XML, we have a hammer, nails and a box of wood, but we don’t have a house yet.”

XML is not replacing LonMark’s present formats, says Jeremy Roberts of LonMark. Instead, XML is being viewed as a supplement.

“For us, the main advantage of XML is that it can be read by many off-the-shelf tools, and even read by visual inspection,” he says. “This allows for a vast array of conversions and native data manipulations without the need to understand several varying formats.

“A disadvantage is the increase in file size as compared to binary formulas. For memory-sensitive or bandwidth-restricted devices, this can be a large disadvantage.”

XML encoders and decoders can be small but they do involve computerized memory and processing and so embedding them into a light switch, for example, may be considered technological overkill. The strength of XML is in applications such as Web-based facility information and management systems.

Gaining a Following

Because XML is showing up in many diverse facility and enterprise software management programs, those involved in interoperability are following its implementation.

“There are hundreds of organizations currently working to develop interoperability standards for their particular niche markets, such as lease management, human resources, architecture, engineering and construction, facility management, and many other business processes,” says Andy Fuhrman, president of CAFM Services. “These interoperability efforts are designed to streamline data transactions between software applications, operating systems and in some cases, languages, currencies and measurement standards. Most of these standards are being built around the use of XML.”

Cox warns that XML’s current popularity doesn’t mean all applications are created equal. “What really matters is whether these applications work,” he says. “Many facility technology companies are fairly small and they all are trying to migrate to the Web world. You want to ask how they are actually using XML so you can cut through some of the smoke and mirrors in making choices.”

“There is a growing concern that the multitude of interoperable standards will not be able to talk with one another,” says Fuhrman.

For whole building lifecycle asset management to work effectively, all the divergent pieces need to work together, so CoreNet Global’s Operation eCRE was formed in Fall 2000. The collaboration grew so that by Fall 2001, a campaign to develop a consistent approach to managing corporate real estate in an inter-networked industry took shape. Some of those initial companies included Citigroup, CapitalOne, Intel, Sun Microsystems, McKesson, Ford, Microsoft, Sprint and Cisco, says Fuhrman.

In June 2003, the working groups reorganized as the Open Standards Consortium for Real Estate (OSCRE). OSCRE’s goal is to ease coordination, standardization and collaboration across key stakeholders in the commercial real estate industry. It hopes to work with the Appraisal Institute, the International Alliance for Interoperability, the American Institute of Architects, Building Owners and Managers Association International, and the International Facility Management Association, among others.

Although facility executives will be buying a BAS or CAFM system, not JAVA or .NET per se, it’s still important to be aware of the underlying Internet technology. In a growing number of organizations, building control systems and facility databases are being tied into other organizational systems. Because both JAVA and .NET support XML extensively, facility executives need be less concerned with the underlying technology, says Cox. Instead, it may be more important to see which way the IT department is moving. Then look carefully at business requirements. Finally, as both Java and .NET are robust platforms with considerable benefits to offer, Cox suggests “consider cost, but only after you have looked under the hood of each.”

Rita Tatum has covered facility management and technology issues for more than 25 years.

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  posted on 9/1/2003   Article Use Policy