By Brad Nelson
Brad Nelson clarifies the concepts of integration and convergence.
There is a great deal of confusion over the concepts of integration and convergence. One company may call themselves “system integrators,” while another might use the moniker “convergence experts,” and still another may claim to be “specialists in smart building technology.” In our industry, all of these, including “integration and convergence,” have become merely buzzwords. However, setting aside all of the marketing variations, these two terms have distinct meanings as applied to the electronic systems segment of the construction world.
In 2006, NSCA convened a Convergence Summit with the expressed goal of defining these things in the context of the then-present and future status of the industry. That group of industry experts came to certain conclusions about what convergence really is, how it may be implemented both in our industry and the larger construction world, and what NSCA should be doing to help prepare the membership and industry for these coming changes.
As was done at that conference, let’s begin with defining the two words.
Integration is the joining together of two or more disparate electronic systems so that program material and control signals are passed among them as needed, using analog or digital transport and protocols (Figure 1). With system integration, this joining is selective and happens only at the points where the different signals need to be handed off or translated. In a building, a common example is when a touch screen controller is used to lower a projector and screen, draw motorized shades, turn on the sound, and dim the lighting. Program material is passed between the audio and video systems, and control commands pass from the touch screen controller to the other systems.
Convergence is similar, but with one essential difference. With true system convergence, all electronic systems are parts of the overall building network. This means that all program material and control signals must enter and leave the same digital network as all the other electronic systems in the building (Figure 2).
At first blush, this may not seem too difficult nor groundbreaking. However, consider that a network means a different thing to building automation, life safety, HVAC, AV, IT, etc. Though all have digital networks for specific uses, right now none of them are totally compatible. To reach that first threshold of compatibility, all the systems must
- be part of the same cabling infrastructure.
- all speak the same language and use the same protocol.
- be able to communicate directly with each other, rather than through a software platform that acts as a command initiator or interpreter.
Currently the audio-visual and entertainment technology world is ill-prepared for this level of electronic togetherness. The same can be said for building system technologies, though they are certainly ahead of us. But, the most prepared for this coming change in building, working, and living is the information technology industry. By some estimates, the IT world has a 5 to 7 year head start over the AV industry in providing converged systems to building owners. And since they were first to the dance, they get to pick the music. We will find that the components of our audio and video systems must hang as appliances on the building’s local area network.
This will create significant expectations in residential and commercial systems contractors. The technicians and installers will have to become well-versed in the nuts and bolts of working with IT-based equipment. The system designers and lead technicians will require fluency in working with and on the network. Sales staff will need to have some understanding of information technology, simply to get in the door to speak with the new decision maker, the client’s IT manager. Business owners and managers will shift their business models, as the eroding margins of today’s IT world are paralleled in their own companies.
Lastly, manufacturers may have the most difficulty. They will have to deal with the same margin erosion that their dealers experience. They will have to become experts in designing IT boxes, veiled as audio and video solutions. This will ultimately occur on a transducer-level granularity. And perhaps the highest hurdle for some, they will have to abandon their proprietary digital networks and adopt the open standards based protocol that is used with IT.
In the short time since the NSCA Convergence Summit, some of the ideas discussed there are already coming to fruition. Buildings are currently being constructed, in lands where money is no object, wherein the vision of convergence is embraced and moved forward at a pace that challenges even the most resourceful information technology companies. The building owners are and will be the driving force behind adoption of system convergence, which includes audio, video, IT, life safety, building automation, access control, fire alarm, 24/7 utility monitoring and maintenance, elevators and escalators, lighting, and more.
This is what is truly meant by having a smart or intelligent building. Though these concepts may seem unforeseeably distant to us, in reality, the technology and demands are merely poised on the horizon. bn