Cisco Systems is delivering early on its promise to bring entire building energy management systems under its control. That's a $12 billion market over the next three years or so, it thinks – but it won't be taking it on alone.

On Wednesday, the networking giant announced the availability of its Network Building Mediator, a device that connects HVAC, lighting, security and other electricity-using building systems into its EnergyWise platform.

That's at least six months earlier than Cisco originally expected to add building systems to the platform, launched in January with the goal of monitoring and controlling commercial building energy use over IP networks (see Cisco Jumps Into Energy Management for Computers, Buildings).

Cisco started with systems for Ethernet-powered devices, computers and networked IT equipment. Those are simpler to integrate than the building automation systems based mostly on proprietary systems from dozens of incumbents, including Schneider Electric and Johnson Controls, to name two companies Cisco has said it is working with on the project.

But Cisco's Building Mediator opens up the field of potential partners by integrating a host of different legacy protocols and translating them to internet protocol, so to speak, according to Marthin De Beer, senior vice president at Cisco's emerging technology group.

EnergyWise is free for customers of Cisco's Catalyst switching system. Not so its Building Mediator devices, which costs about $5,000 apiece, De Beer said.

Still, that's cheap compared to the cost of installing a building automation system. And it can offer 15 percent to 20 percent energy savings when added to them, on top of the 25 percent or so that comes with putting in a system in the first place, he estimated.

That's because it opens up new ways to save energy. Take one of Cisco's favorite examples – linking Cisco EnergyWise with building security systems (which it also makes, by the way) so that employees' office lights and computers turn on when they swipe their security badges at the front door in the morning, and turn them off when they swipe on the way out.

It also can centralize control of multiple buildings across a customers' portfolio, De Beer noted.

About 80 customers have quietly been using the system in recent months, according to David Hsieh, marketing vice president at Cisco's emerging technology group. Some of them are clients of Richads-Zeta Building Intelligence, the building automation systems maker it acquired in January and has integrated into Building Mediator, he said.

NetApp, for one, also uses Cisco's system to manage its demand response program, in which utility Pacific Gas & Electric pays it to promise to cut power during peak demand times, he said. That lets the storage and services giant cut about 1 megawatt of power use in 20 minutes or so, De Beer said.

In fact, he cited demand response aggregator EnerNoc several times as an example of the ways Cisco hopes to see its building management system put to use.

But Cisco isn't announcing that it is getting into the business of brokering that service, as EnerNoc does, he added. Neither is it declaring that it will install the sensors and controls that make up a building automation system.

"We're probably going to partner with a lot more companies than we will compete with," he said. That's much the tack Cisco is taking with companies like General Electric in its big push into the smart grid space, where it already has deals with Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy (see Cisco Wants to Be Everywhere in the Smart Grid).

As for the building automation industry, Abner Germanow, a networking and communications analyst for IDC, noted that companies with proprietary systems are likely eyeing Cisco's move and thinking about making their systems more compatible with it.

On the other hand, Cisco will be eager to work with companies in the field, he said. Those include Echelon, Honeywell, Siemens, Eaton, and many others.

Cisco sees room for both the retrofit and new building businesses, De Beer said. Retrofits will be more prevalent in North America and Europe, while new buildings will be a focus in Asia and India – its Globalization Centre East complex in Bangalore, India is where Building Mediator was developed and tested.

One thing's for sure – saving energy in buildings has never been such a focus of attention or investment. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act directs billions of dollars in Department of Energy grants to making buildings more efficient.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has made a particular focus of building automation software, naming it the target of about $100 million in DOE research grants (see Green Light post). Chu also has mentioned research into open source building energy management software, possibly in a joint venture with China to avoid the conflicts that can emerge over ownership of intellectual property.

Government stimulus, the rising cost of energy and looming regulations on carbon emissions are bringing the energy efficiency and smart grid markets into focus for IT giants including Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Google and Oracle.

Startups are putting their own building energy management systems in place. PowerIt Solutions and EPS Corp. focus on industrial sites (see PowerIt Lands $6M for Industrial Energy Efficiency and EPS gets $30M to Cut Power at Factories).

Cimetrics and Tririga target commercial or retail real estate (see Controlling Energy Consumption, A Million Square Feet at a Time). And Scientific Conservation Inc. says its hosted software can optimize such systems to squeeze about 25 percent more efficiency out of them  (see Making Building Automation Brainier).