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Meet the Architect: Gareth Johnson is on a Mission to Make Technology More Accessible

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This week we delve a little deeper into our Chief Software Architect, Gareth Johnson. With over 20 years of experience in software, including a stint at a competitor as their Core Architect, Gareth is the mastermind behind the FIN Edge2Cloud technology. Here’s his story of how he took up the challenge of creating Edge2Cloud and other initiatives he champions.

FIN Edge2Cloud: What it is

FIN Edge2Cloud allows users of the FIN Framework to remotely and securely interact with a building’s data. Until now, this has required IT support, including the use of a VPN connection, or having to visit a site, using up valuable time and resources.

How it works

FIN Edge2Cloud uses the latest IoT web services technology from AWS to establish a highly secure link between FIN framework and the cloud. Users can log-on to the cloud service and access FIN (and building) data remotely from anywhere, using any browser. Edge2Cloud leverages the open Haystack standard for site-to-cloud communications.

“The motivation for Edge2Cloud was ease of use and security. We wanted to make it super simple for any user to remotely access a building from anywhere in the world -  as easy as talking to your Alexa or Google Home. We now have over 900 sites connected to Edge2Cloud. It's pretty cool to see new people registering sites every day,” says Gareth.

The Challenges

FIN Edge2Cloud is paving the way for OEMs, system integrators, facilities managers and end-users to reap the benefits of remote and secure BMS connectivity without the need of additional IT support or a VPN. But bringing it to market posed multiple challenges. First, bringing mainstream IoT technology to the building space as an OEM driven company meant a complicated route to market.

“We don't just sell to end customers. We sell through OEMs and those OEMs have system integrators and those integrators have end customers. It's multiple layers and it differs on the complexity of those layers and who you are selling to. So there's a lot of branding, customization, and licensing in between all of this good stuff,” says Gareth.

Another challenge was creating the flexibility needed to allow different stakeholders to access your building’s data while also ensuring that important layer of security.

“When you have multiple roles and layers, you need to model that in a system. It needs to be flexible enough for a building owner to allow a contractor to have access easily and in a secure way. Edge2Cloud gives you that security and easy remote access to your data and graphics instantly. You don't have to log in twice, you're logging in using your cloud identity once using secure multi-factor authentication.” explains Gareth.

Another industry wide problem is the fact that it’s easy to expose your whole building automation system. Even if you've got a super secure server, every solution you integrate exposes your system directly, which can lead to an attack. 

“The FIN Framework is all Haystack based. The way you set up the security to talk to your portfolio of devices in your buildings is by setting up and configuring Haystack data. That's really critical. It enables you to use an open standard to configure what buildings you have access to, and then applies those rules. So as a user, I might have access to all the buildings in my village or perhaps in a specific region, type of building, part of a building, or particular room. When you get to that granularity of who's got access to what, that's where we can use tags. We can set up a Haystack filter query, which basically says what that user has access to and we can do that at a very granular degree. That's where Haystack Core started, which is our TypeScript Open Source Library.”

Building community in Project Haystack

FIN Edge2Cloud could not have been built without Project Haystack. As Gareth took on building this accessible, secure, and open way for users to access their building’s data, he quickly realized how integral Project Haystack was, and that there was more work to be done on the open source side as well. 

“With Edge2Cloud, I needed an easier way to store JSON data for buildings. I found that the existing JSON standard wasn't quite what I wanted because it still required a little bit of extra coding. I wanted it to be as simple as possible for people to work with Haystack data,” says Gareth. 

And so Haystack JSON (HaySON), a JSON encoding format to make Haystack data more accessible for developers, was born. Gareth is actually very passionate about making Haystack more accessible for developers.

“That accessibility is a really important factor. We need to get more developers interested in working with Haystack, and in order to do that, we need to make sure we're using standard, popular, well-known technologies,” explains Gareth. 

In looking at the technology trends and the world’s most popular programming languages, Gareth identified other ways to contribute to Project Haystack’s accessibility. Haystack Core, an open-source software library written in TypeScript, was created to enable more sophisticated applications to be built with ease and at speed. Haystack Core paves the way for a host of new solutions that can manage energy usage, reduce carbon emissions, and leverage the latest technologies. It laid the foundation for robust, open technology that J2 Innovations could build Edge2Cloud on. 

“Haystack Core is this TypeScript based foundation which enables us to build these software applications. It actually consists of a number of libraries called Haystack Core, which is the core object model. Then we've got something called Haystack NClient, which is our network library and we've got some code generation tools and Haystack React, which is for building UI applications. So we've got a whole suite of software libraries there that we've given away as open source, which we believe will make it easier for people to pick up and use Haystack. It’s all completely open source and documented online on J2’s GitHub account. It was a very big deal for us to create that open source library as it was the very first library J2 innovations had ever open sourced and one that we’re still contributing to as well,” says Gareth.

“It's that sharing of data - that sharing of technology that enables us to build forward. Project Haystack is far more than just a tagging model or forum. You've got source code and practical examples out there. We wanted to put the best of breed technology out into the marketplace to use. This idea of sharing for the greater good to proliferate the standard more and use it is really important to us. As Chief Architect, I'm able to take more of a governing role around that in J2 iInnovations and I love it because I love working with people.”

You know that saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats”? That’s what the Project Haystack community is all about. That sense of community is what fuels Gareth’s passion to build and create.

“I think another thing about Haystack is the way it brings people together. I love that. I've always loved the idea of community. With J2 Innovations as well, you're building frameworks and technology for other people to build their companies on. That's a very big responsibility. Other companies take our technology and they build upon it and build really successful, interesting businesses that make a big difference in the world. And so building those communities has been a very, very big part of my professional life. Creating technology, listening to those customers firsthand, and then trying to go back and solve those problems is something that I like,” he says.

Why he loves this industry

Gareth may be a builder of technology but what he loves about this industry is the people. 

“The thing that really appeals to me in this industry is the wide range of not just people, but also technology. When you work in the building automation industry, you're not just exposed to one particular stack of technology. You're not just making one thing, you're making a load of things and it touches so many different areas. I really like that. It's not just about making cloud applications. It's not just about making edge applications. When you look at that rich technology stack, there's a really wide range of technologies. Everything from security to cloud to edge, which as a software architect is really fascinating. I really love technology and I really like working with people. We've got the best of both worlds in this industry,” says Gareth.

He also loves the openness of the Project Haystack community. 

“I like the idea of Project Haystack being an open standard. That’s very important to me because it's not just one technology vendor ruling everything, it's basing everything on an open standard and having equal footing and different implementations of those standards as well.” 

And that community and standard we are all building and contributing to? It’s necessary to help solve climate change.

“I think it's wonderful when we see people work together to create wonderful things. It gives me hope - especially the way the world is at the moment. It's really amazing the way people pull together from different countries and backgrounds to try and solve some of these big problems. When it comes to climate change, when we work together, we really can solve these big problems.”

The future of Haystack and Edge2Cloud

Gareth and the team are in process of making another major contribution to Project Haystack, which we will announce later: a new library that will make Haystack accessible to even more developers. 

On the Edge2Cloud side, new updates were released with FIN 5.1.1 - something we will pick up in a next blog!  The team is also releasing secure backups, where you can take your building’s data and securely back it up into the cloud (coming in the next release of the FIN Framework). Developer APIs are also in the works. 

“We are a framework technology provider, so it's not just the black box. We want to make sure other systems can work with your building’s data. So that's why there are developer APIs that you can call into securely using the same access mechanism into the FIN Framework so you can talk to all your buildings and portfolios and work with data there.” 

Stay tuned! You’ll be hearing more from Gareth as we release new features for Edge2Cloud AND new open source libraries for Project Haystack. Check out this blog to learn more about what Edge2Cloud can do for your next project.

B. Scott Muench

Scott joined J2 Innovations as a partner in 2011, and is now Vice President of Customer Experience. He has a wide range of responsibilities including evangelism, business development, training, and operational excellence. Scott is well known as an industry expert in smarthomes and smart buildings. He is a past president of ASHRAE, and is currently a board member for Project Haystack. Scott attended Clarkson University for Mechanical Engineering and graduated with a BS/Business in Organizational Innovation.

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Topics from this blog: J2 News & Events Project Haystack FIN Edge2Cloud

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