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What IT Teams Bring To Green Building Efforts

Empire State Building
Due for an energy makeover

People get drawn into information technology work for a lot of reasons, but seldom because they have a passion for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. However, the extreme power and cooling demands of modern data centers have forced IT pros to build expertise in facilities management, and in some cases that's helping them move their companies toward greener, smarter buildings.

A smart building is one that uses networked sensors and controls and centralized monitoring and management to improve the efficiency of its operation. Even amid an economic downturn that has been particularly hard on commercial construction, the market for such facilities is being spurred by high energy costs and carbon footprint concerns, reinforced by federal stimulus dollars.

While some of that money is being spent on passive improvements such as better insulated windows, smart technologies can go further by specifically adjusting heating, cooling, and lighting depending on factors such as whether a given space is crowded or vacant. Lights can be dimmed when natural lighting peaks, and natural cooling can be used in place of air conditioning when temperatures drop outside. Done right, these facilities can be more comfortable and productive for the people inside, in addition to being more efficient.

So what's IT's role? When IT executives are tapped to play a role in such projects, it's because of their experience with data center energy efficiency and also the networked nature of these systems, says Gartner's Rakesh Kumar. IT also brings a deep understanding of how to stick to standards and secure networks. "The central point of control has to be either with the IT department or very closely aligned with the IT department," Kumar contends. And that demands organizational changes. More on that later.

But there also are technology reasons why a combined IT-facilities approach isn't always natural. Building systems usually run on a parallel network to IT's. Sometimes that's of necessity because security cameras or temperature sensors must be deployed in locations that the IT network doesn't reach, so they send signals over dedicated cabling, or electrical wiring. They use application-specific protocols that IT isn't experienced with, though the industry is converging on two standards: LonWorks, created by Echelon, and BACnet, which has the backing of groups including the International Standards Organization.

As IT teams get more involved, they tend to push for compatibility with standards such as the Simple Network Management Protocol that IT systems management software uses, so the status of building devices can be monitored with the same tool as IT, Kumar says. At that point, a network operations center can become an operations center for facilities as well.

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