Inside a hot and humming mechanical room in Nashville, Tenn., John Sublett sat with a small team on overturned 5-gallon buckets, hunched over PCs. The group of young men at a startup called Tridium was brought in by the client to install a new web-based management system for an industrial chiller plant. The year was 1998.
“This plant had invested in our technology and frankly had a couple kids come in and install it,” said Sublett, who at the time was only 24 years old. The men were also software and networking people, not buildings people, but they were looking at buildings problems with an eye toward software technology.
“That’s why what we ended up creating was so different from the rest of the building automation industry. We were so thankful that the company took a chance on us in our early days.”
The software engineers flew back home to Richmond, Va. “And we sat down at our desks, opened our computers, and right in front of us we could see the chiller plant operating and many technologies coming together at once, very cool,” Sublett said.
What amazed the group was not that their vision to create such remote visibility worked, but that they were able to string together technologies that had, at the time, only recently become available – the web, BACnet®, Java – to create something entirely new.
“From our very first project, we’ve been about creating solutions from multiple, open technologies, and that’s still our story today,” Sublett said.
And so went the first incarnation of the Niagara Framework®, a software platform for connecting and controlling nearly any device and translating millions of pieces of data with the purpose of helping its users make informed decisions. Nearly 20 years since its founding, Tridium has arrived at Niagara 4, built on open web standards and a mission to become a core technology running the global Internet of Things.
Yet when the company started in 1996, just one year after the internet was commercialized, the vision of Tridium’s founders was to create a system with open connectivity that would let man talk to machine.
“We knew we were looking for an ecosystem business, but we didn’t realize how big and complex the ecosystem would end up being,” the 43-year-old Sublett recalled at the company’s world headquarters, situated on the third floor of an unassuming office building in suburban Richmond.
"What we were going out to do was to bring open systems to a proprietary market and really trying to help systems integrators, end users and building owners.”
Sublett and team quickly found that as a startup, they had capable people – but not enough of them if they were going to expand beyond building automation and other core markets. “As we started to solve some of the problems in various industries, we saw bigger problems in other industries and realized right away that we weren’t going to be able to do it all ourselves,” he said. “We realized we needed to do things differently.”
So in 2002, the Niagara Framework morphed into the more open Niagara AX, a complete redesign of the system, with open APIs for developers to create device-to-enterprise applications and internet-enabled products. The community that has emerged since has taken on a life of its own: more than 500,000 instances of Niagara run throughout the world, not only in building automation (Tridium’s largest market), but also in data centers, access control and security, aerospace, industrial controls and smart cities.
“We aren’t in these industries because we went into them,” Sublett said, “we are in there because our community took us there.”
As mobile devices entered the world’s pockets, cloud computing emerged, and networks became more reliable and secure for carrying business-critical data, it was clear to Tridium that Niagara needed an upgrade bigger than a versioning update.
“I was a skeptic for a while on the cloud piece, because I wasn't sure that the reliability and security of networks would get to the level where you could take a system like [Niagara] and do important things in the cloud,” Sublett admitted. “I was wrong about that. The cloud is a reality, and cloud technologies that have been maturing over the last two or three years have completely changed the game in terms of time to market and the types of heavy lifting that you have to do to deploy an application or a service.”
With a vision toward an open web platform, Tridium engineers began with research, visiting more than 60 locations around the world to interview legacy and new customers to understand their needs and wants for a new application.
“The first thing we learned is what we are doing well, and one of our strengths is the unified toolset that we have,” he said. “We had to keep our deep and wide system architecture programmable, configurable, monitorable and maintainable through a consistent toolset. That's Niagara DNA. We heard loud and clear: ‘Maintain that ability.’”
The Tridium team spent hundreds of hours redesigning how data, once acquired, would be visualized. Engineers created interactive visualization allowing end users to quickly see what they want, how they want.
Another focus for engineers was compressing workflows to decrease the number of steps required to acquire, cleanse and provide data to applications. Out of this came Niagara tagging and templating to easily access data. “Tagging and templating together really decrease the deployment cost and reusability of applications, and decrease the installation cost of the integration project,” Sublett said.
Open, connected devices that bridge the gap from the digital to physical world are a true threat for hackers. “Just like any other IT domain, it is a never-ending journey to make sure that you’re always enhancing software, but also cyber-security enhancements,” Sublett said. Niagara 4 takes a “defense-in-depth” approach that requires strong credentials, and both data in motion and sensitive data at rest are encrypted.
Tried-and-true Niagara AX isn’t going away anytime soon, and will be used by many in the community for years to come.
“As a software developer you always want to build something new, but in the real world you need to be sure that the systems and solutions that people have built, and the investments they have made, are maintained and carried forward,” Sublett said. “The newness and goodness of Niagara 4 came with the absolute requirement that we not abandon our existing installed base and customers who have been with us for years.”
When upgrading Niagara AX versions, for example, Tridium’s commitment to the community meant it wouldn’t destabilize core fundamental technologies within the architecture.
But while Niagara 4’s core foundational runtime, integration engine and control engine have all stayed the same and been seamlessly migrated from Niagara AX to Niagara 4, many components are fundamentally different.
“Many of the mobility and open web technologies reached the point where we could apply them to the good of the Niagara Community,” Sublett said. “Anywhere where there was a better option than what we invented ourselves, we un-invented those things and adopted new standards.”
Sublett is proud of the code that powers Niagara. But he makes it clear that the true power and differentiator of the platform is its community.
“We are the stewards of that core technology, but we are not the community,” he says. “We’re just members of it.”
Sublett’s favorite piece of feedback he’s ever received from a Niagara Community member is that the Niagara Framework makes it so that the Niagara user can never say “No.”
“An integrator comes up to a challenge, a problem that a customer needs them to solve, and they can always do it with Niagara,” Sublett said. “There’s occasionally a question of expense and complexity, but it’s always possible. The answer is never ‘No.’”
A camera on the mailbox pointing toward the house. An irrigation system. An open garage door.
All controlled through Niagara AX.
Many engineers at Tridium use Niagara in their own homes to control their systems to create efficiencies, save on heating bills…and prank their children. Years ago, around 2:45 on some afternoons, Tridium employees would gather around a colleague’s desk as his kids came home from school. The mailbox camera at the house streamed to the employee’s computer in real time.
As the kids walked up the driveway, a click of the mouse closed the garage door, forcing the kids to change direction to the front door.
And a click of the mouse flipped on the irrigation system.
“You actually got to watch in real time as the kids got nailed by the sprinkler,” Sublett chuckled.