For years now, we’ve been talking about the internet of things (IOT) for the built environment -- provisioning offices, stores, warehouses and other buildings with wireless thermostats and sensors, heating and air conditioning units, and other energy-controlling devices.

The only problem: the world of commercial real estate runs on decidedly last-generation technology. There’s nothing like the equivalent of the ubiquitous home or office Wi-Fi router to connect it all -- at least, not until Intel’s Building Management Platform (BMP) comes to market later this year.

Over the past 18 months or so, Intel has been working with a set of software and hardware partners to put together a low-cost, simple-to-use IOT server of sorts. The BMP is meant to be as easy to set up as a wireless router, but equipped with all the legacy protocols required to tap into the world of energy-using “things” in buildings.

Intel debuted the BMP at its IBCon 2016 show in June, in the form of a certified gateway from hardware partner Advantech, using Intel-owned Wind River embedded software and McAfee cybersecurity, and running middleware from Candi Controls and software and applications from Lucid Design Group.

That same design will be put into its first pilot systems to be deployed this fall, and the "goal is to have this out in the market this year,” said Thierry Godart, Intel’s general manager of energy solutions. “This technology enables a simpler solution for installation, a software-as-a-service approach for applications, and a large and diverse ecosystem of hardware and software vendors.”

This could be a big deal for companies seeking to bring the latest advances in data collection, advanced analytics and device control to buildings. Today, these companies have been forced to limit themselves to the largest and most sophisticated buildings, or to jury-rig existing technology to run their applications in the vast majority of buildings that don’t have the latest building management system (BMS) from companies like Siemens, Schneider Electric, Honeywell or Johnson Controls.

The BMP’s target market is small to mid-size buildings that want to enable IOT and energy management, but can’t afford a traditional BMS, Godart said. For these buildings, “the barrier to entry was the cost of installation, and the fact that, without a certification program and an ecosystem of hardware and software, you were not sure you were getting the best-practice [standard] in usability and security.”  

Let’s take a look at those barriers, starting with cost. Today, the least expensive BMS gateways that offer interoperability across different vendor technologies, such as the Tridium JACE (Java Application Control Engine), cost between $4,000 to $8,000 apiece after programming and installation, said Steve Raschke, CEO of Candi Controls.

That price includes some complex installation and wiring to existing building systems, with licenses for different pieces of proprietary software, he said. And beyond that, once they’re installed, “You can’t manage clouds of JACEs -- it’s old technology,” he said.

The BMP, by contrast, allows for a relatively simple installation, with automated discovery of different protocols and devices in buildings using Candi’s middleware, he said. “You can have the data out in far faster intervals, with far more devices you can connect to, in a couple of hours.”

And while Intel hasn’t released pricing figures, Raschke said that the BMP should cost five to 10 times less than the equivalent JACE device, putting the upfront cost in the sub-$1,000 range. With that pricing, “You’ve radically increased the margins for the services companies, and you’ve opened up a much wider swath of potential customers,” he said.

It’s important to note that building IOT vendors have been able to put together hardware-software packages capable of doing similar tasks as those Intel is promising from its BMP. One example is the recent announcement from startup EnTouch Controls that it’s using Intel technology to expand its reach to small commercial buildings with legacy BMS controls.

But as Godart noted, these previous iterations of Intel technology have been put together in a “bag of parts” approach. With the BMP, by contrast, Intel is making its own pledges to support the latest cybersecurity and interoperability features -- something that any new approach to building controls will need to include to reach a mass market.

“One of the, can I really expose building information to the cloud? This should provide some peace of mind” on that front, he said. “We’re engaged in the small building space from all aspects. But in terms of the pre-integrated platform that takes care of edge-to-cloud, BMP is our focus.”

Intel is looking to bring the BMP to market through IT distribution partners, or through contractors that install building HVAC and energy management systems, Godart said. Companies like Intel partner Lucid, which has built what it calls a “building operating system” to collect data and develop applications for managing various aspects of building controls, could find this kind of standardization critical to expanding their market.

At the same time, many companies that have taken their own hardware approaches to small and mid-size commercial buildings -- such as Powerhouse Dynamics, GridPoint, EnTouch, and a host of others -- may find the BMP a useful tool to support software-as-a-service approaches that can scale more easily from single buildings to real estate portfolios. So could companies like BuildingIQ, FirstFuel and Ecova acquisition Retroficiency, which provide software-centric approaches to building energy analytics and optimization.

We’ve been watching the slow but steady movement of IT-centric building systems, such as IP telephony and video surveillance, into the broader world of building controls. One of the key barriers to faster expansion of this market has been the slow pace of integration between the world of IT and the world of building operations technology, as noted in this 2015 article describing the latest research from smart buildings research firm Memoori.

To be sure, we’ve seen this kind of concept fail in the market in years past. One notable example was Cisco’s Building Mediator product, built on its acquisition of Richards-Zeta Building Intelligence and launched to great fanfare in 2009, only to be shuttered in 2011.

But Intel and its partners believe that things have changed enough in the building technology field in the intervening years to position the BMP for greater success, Candi’s Raschke said.

“Nobody knows for sure whether the timing is perfect,” he said. “But I think we’re near, if not at, an inflection point in the marketplace.” First, he said, “Everyone’s aware that you can go out and buy IOT devices, and there are plenty of them out there.” Second, “There are now a mature set of services. Lucid, for example, has been out there for years. EnerNOC has tens of thousands of buildings, and they’re signing up more.”

And finally, while traditional building operations technology providers have owned this market up to this point, “We’re now in a place where IT is driving this. It’s coming down to another set of channels that are much more nimble, and they’re responsible for pulling together the networks” within buildings.

In that sense, “We don’t want to describe Intel’s product as a building automation product,” he said. Instead, “It’s a device networking and management product” for a world in which buildings look more like IT networks than they ever have before.