Johnson Controls International set out to deliver truly smart, healthy, and sustainable buildings that can update, self-heal and evolve. But a patchwork of disparate sensor types, security risks and complexities stood in the way of them focusing on the outcomes that matter for their users. 

The Challenge

Johnson Controls International’s (JCI) OpenBlue solution was born out of a need to monitor, manage and maintain buildings digitally in real-time to reduce costs, promote sustainability and user experience while extending the building’s life via software updates similar to the modern-day autonomous vehicle.

JCI’s VP for Architecture, Trent Swanson commented- “We wanted to create spaces where people could relax, with good lighting, feel safe in a building that ‘just works. It means a seamless experience from the moment you park on-site, all controlled through intuitive interfaces and digital twins infused with AI, rather than one application for HVAC and another for CCTV. We wanted interoperability and a streamlined user experience.” Trent was looking to the likes of Tesla to extend the operational life of buildings by reducing the time it takes to bring additional functionality to market. He commented: “Previously, it would take automotive manufacturers 3-4 years to add a feature to their cars, but that’s all changed with over the air updates (OTA). We should be able to deploy mask detection functionality to a surveillance camera that already sits in reception without having to wait or physically replace the camera altogether.

Reducing running costs and extending the operational life of a building presents a significant point of differentiation for building vendors and facility managers. So JCI developed the OpenBlue solution, which delivers upon the following pain points:

Current IssuesOpenBlue Solution
Non-standard device types, each with their own connectivity and security protocolsUnified and common device identity
A mix of PSK and one-off PKI for projects that makes long term trust management difficultLeverage JCI PKI in all products to improve trust management and severability
A patchwork of systems that are difficult to maintainFlattened hierarchy for management of their devices
Most connected devices/systems require on site loading of updates by their customersSecure firmware over the air (OTA)
Native applications on devices with limited portabilityCloud-native application deployment at the edge

OpenBlue was set to become the Rosetta stone for all these issues, unifying a patchwork of disparate systems, all with varying protocols, capabilities and security. Their vision of a secure, self-updating building that accepted any new equipment required solid foundations.

Self-learning, self-healing buildings based on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) require contextual data from thousands of disparate data types that help make better decisions about the building’s operations and the occupant’s safety with sub-second response times. The speed and quantity of compute makes relaying data to the cloud an expensive and cumbersome task, so JCI decided to compute on the devices themselves.

JCI wanted to give building operators a multi-contextual view of an estate in real time thanks to a range of different device types, all operating at the networks edge and only relaying the most pertinent information to the cloud. Logistics companies already optimize their operations through digital twins that operate at the edge, and JCI saw this as an opportunity to provide improved insights into how buildings could be run and how future buildings could be architected.

OpenBlue was an ambitious project and JCI was keen to focus on where they could add value for their customers, rather than focus on the complexities of deploying, managing, securing and updating thousands of IP and non-IP devices that process at the edge. Security was a key concern as a single hack via any one of these nodes could render a building inoperable, breaching the buildings operator’s contract. Trent commented- You have to make sure it’s impervious, and if it is hacked, you need to know instantly, then resolve the issue immediately without the need for global truck rolls.

The Solution

Pelion offers a range of solutions to support an organization’s digital transformation. In this instance, their device management platform was selected to flatten the device hierarchy that JCI was faced with and standardize the management, security and update of devices. Just four months after a proof of concept was presented, Pelion formed the digital foundation upon which OpenBlue now sits. Its responsibilities are two-fold:

1. Offering secure, streamlined, scalable device management

Devices now benefit from a PKI integration with JCI’s digital certificates at the point of manufacture meaning devices are born with a root of trust and an identity that can offer asymmetric cryptography plus all the necessary hooks into their own CI/CD flows. This cookie cutter approach also means that any OTA updates with new functionality can be administered on a global scale without risk or friction or obsolescence.

“It’s not sexy but OpenBlue is key to ensuring we deliver value to building occupants sooner- Pelion is helping JCI democratize the smart building for all.” – Trent Swanson, JCI

The interoperability and flexibility of Pelion means that Openblue will integrate with legacy OT technology and embrace new IoT capabilities over a building’s extended life, fostering connectivity, openness and scalability. Trent commented “We could have tasked a whole team to come up with an unreliable, unscalable proprietary solution that lacked the functionality offered by Pelion. Instead, we saved over six months and focused on bringing outcomes that improved the comfort, safety and sustainability of our customers.”

2. OpenBlue bridge for containerized software deployment at the edge

Edge processing is still a relatively immature space when compared to cloud and presents its own challenges like the intricacies of managing volatile memory. Pelion edge application orchestration is Kubernetes-enabled and offers JCI offline operation and local ML inferencing. Gateway system management monitors the health of the gateways and acts as a home for OS network connectivity and system configuration- all in a single app.

Gateway management consolidates a broad range of devices deployed during a building’s life, unites and translates protocol to deliver a secure, scalable, and reliable infrastructure for new and existing devices. These devices can be updated and diagnosed remotely in real-time and can translate various protocols found in any building, from BLE, Zigbee right through to BACnet and Modbus.

“Our partnership with Pelion has been instrumental to Johnson Controls. The ability to deliver device management, intelligence, and security, at the edge level in the building is critical. And we really depend on Pelion, to help us bring that home.”

Trent Swanson VP for Architecture Johnson Controls

What’s next?

JCI and Pelion’s journey does not stop there. In order to provide sustainable, low cost and low power intelligent processing at the edge, the partnership will utilize proven energy-efficient processors from Arm, which are a key part of Johnson Controls’ distributed hardware deployment. These chips feature secure enclaves that will further bolster the chip to cloud security that’s offered by the partnership. JCI’s involvement with the World Economic Forum has highlighted that CEOs worldwide are struggling to understand precisely how they execute their commitments to reducing carbon and are leveraging Pelion as they launch their ‘Building as a Service’ business model

“CEOs and Chief Digital Officers worldwide are thinking ‘how do I help the company I work for, deliver against this vision of sustainability, through technology? Pelion is a part of that journey for us.”