Now Cisco can even network your building systems

The company's Digital Building Switch series powers the lights and collects data from them

The latest network hardware from Cisco Systems gives new meaning to the words “light switch.”

The Catalyst Digital Building Series Switch is an Ethernet switch designed to link different kinds of building infrastructure over a network. It will be available worldwide in the second quarter. It uses Cisco’s enhanced version of PoE (Power over Ethernet) to run things like lights and cameras while collecting data about those devices over the same standard cable.

The switch embodies the merger of IT and OT (operational technology), one of the big enterprise trends that the internet of things is driving. The line is blurring between information systems like servers and building systems like lighting, heating, and physical security. The new technology could make buildings run better. It might also help to turn IT folks and facilities experts into a bit of both.

Cisco’s new switches can power all the lights in a building by themselves. Instead of being connected to the traditional AC power grid that feeds wall sockets, the lights will run off Ethernet cables from ports in the switch.

This wasn’t possible until LED lights became affordable for use in new buildings and renovations. LEDs use far less power than incandescent or fluorescent lights, and Cisco Universal PoE can carry 60 watts, double the power of standard PoE Plus. (Universal PoE is being considered as an IEEE standard.)

Running the lights off the network has several advantages, according to Cisco.

For the operations team, it’s easier to set up or modify an office because there’s no need for an electrician to pull electric wires out to each light fixture. In most developed countries, there’s also less need for inspections, because it does away with two potential fire hazards: those wires, and incandescent or flourescent lights, which get hot. Ethernet cables out to cool LED lights typically don’t need an inspection.

The switch can also power other building infrastructure, like security cameras, air valves in heating and air-conditioning systems, and badge readers. Cisco is working with partners that make these types of gear. The switch is designed to take the place of specialized, siloed networks for different building systems, said Sachin Gupta, vice president of product management for enterprise switching.

Though all these systems may be physically connected to the same network, Cisco’s DNA (Digital Network Architecture) platform makes it easy to segment them for security, Gupta said. A simple configuration step can prevent sending data from, say, the security cameras to the lights.

For the IT team, there’s a constant supply of data about how lights, cameras and other devices plugged into the switch are being used. The switch has built-in sensors to monitor the power consumption and health of everything plugged into its ports, and it collects information like whether anyone is in a room.

Those kinds of information, in turn, help operations people make the building more efficient and potentially more pleasant for those inside.

This also makes Cisco an integral part of a building’s infrastructure, potentially even more entrenched than the Cisco data networks in most enterprises’ wiring closets. But it doesn’t mean you need a network engineer just to get all the building parts connected and powered. There’s a smartphone app for that, which talks to the switch over Bluetooth.

“Without knowing networking, you can select what you’re trying to do , and you can test out that you’ve installed everything correctly,” Gupta said.

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