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Interview with GNU remotecontrol

by wtheaker Contributions Published on Sep 05, 2014 01:00 PM
This is the latest installment of our Licensing and Compliance Lab's series on free software developers who choose GNU licenses for their works.

GNU remotecontrol logo

In this edition, we conducted an email-based interview with Stephen H. Dawson and the rest of the GNU remotecontrol project, a web application for managing building automation devices. Stephen is the maintainer of the GNU remotecontrol software project and is an Information Technology Management professional with over twenty-five years of industry experience in various areas of application development, database management, and networking.

Tell us a bit about GNU remotecontrol

GNU remotecontrol is a web application serving as a management tool for reading from and writing to multiple IP enabled heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) thermostats, and other building automation devices. While various IP thermostat manufacturers have offered web portals exclusively for their users to remotely access and adjust the settings of individual thermostats, they do not provide a unified management tool for multiple thermostats. The goal of GNU remotecontrol is to provide this management tool for individuals and companies alike.

The background on this project is focused around the HVAC Thermostat. Currently, there is an international effort to create a smart grid, which is a modernized electrical grid that uses data-driven, responsive technologies which are designed to improve the efficiency, reliability, economics, and sustainability of the production and distribution of electricity. The HVAC thermostat of today struggles to become part of the smart grid due to an inability to provide remotely controlled HVAC operation and an unfitness to predict HVAC demand. The tension to balance HVAC comfort against cost is a constant challenge. GNU remotecontrol provides the ability to simplify energy management and determine energy costs through a database driven, web application with a user interface that provides simple to operate check boxes and pull-down menus. GNU remotecontrol can be used to increase the deployment of the smart grid, while also providing additional end user benefits through data driven decision making. The results are lower costs from optimized HVAC management and the improved efficiency of existing HVAC implementations. The long-term target of the GNU remotecontrol project is to pave the way for demand response through unattended server side automation.

What inspired you to create GNU remotecontrol?

GNU remotecontrol is not a solo effort. GNU remotecontrol would not exist without the project team. There are also several folks contributing on and off without being a part of the team.

The vision for GNU remotecontrol came in 1978. The United States was experiencing a substantial energy supply problem. GNU remotecontrol was envisioned to help solve the energy consumption problem, on a national basis. The technology necessary to interconnect the various pieces of GNU remotecontrol was not widely available in 1978. 2007 started the first tangible software development effort, after years of thinking, talking, and sketching plans. Several technology pieces brought together under GNU remotecontrol were already in place and could be leveraged by GNU remotecontrol, once the initial code development was complete. We considered selling the software. We found two firm barriers preventing widespread adoption in the commercial market.

  1. People wanted the software under their control, including possession of the source code.
  2. People wanted help to use the software, but were often unsure of the help they needed.

It became clear commercial usage of this software would not occur at any foreseeable future, if ever, due to the requirements of the people using this software. They want a complete list of information regarding the software (source code) and assistance available to them (collaboration) before they would commit to using it. This inseparable combination brought the realization to release the software through a license satisfying these exact two user requirements.

How are people using it?

This answer is three-fold, based on the network connected HVAC thermostats available today:

  • The people who have directly spoken with us are researching the existing software capabilities and determining if the software is suitable for their facilities.

  • The people who have emailed us are looking for a suitable substitute for the proprietary software they use now. They are looking for more information on how to reduce their operating costs and leverage collaborative effort on their next energy management installation. Some of these people are looking to retrofit existing energy management installations.

  • The people who desire to remain nameless and faceless are often competitors concerned that their proprietary software will not be as desired in the future as it is now, due to the benefit of a collaborative software project using a license such as AGPL.

We are not surprised there are those who feel GNU remotecontrol is their competitor, although we state GNU remotecontrol does not have competitors. We are a collaborative effort. True collaboration is the polar opposite of competition.

Now, let's talk a bit about who is involved using GNU remotecontrol and the flow of steps to get things working.

  1. Getting GNU remotecontrol setup with the source code, the web server, and the database server is an information technology effort.
  2. Getting GNU remotecontrol setup with an energy efficiency plan is a mechanical engineering effort, after the GNU remotecontrol information technology parts are setup.
  3. Getting a network connected HVAC thermostat setup is a combined effort, between mechanical engineering and information technology.
  4. Selecting GNU remotecontrol is often the financial officer's or business owner's decision. The financial officer receives the hardware and software requirements of the business facilities, from information technology and mechanical engineering groups, undertaking an evaluation of cost versus benefit regarding any proposed energy management solution.
  5. The business then chooses the option best meeting their needs. Guidance on structuring the implementation cost is covered in the GNU remotecontrol user manual.

What features do you think really sets GNU remotecontrol apart from similar software?

The "ease of use" phrase is the most prevalent comment we hear from first time users. The ability to perform concurrent operations on multiple network connected HVAC thermostats is another key feature of GNU remotecontrol, bringing significant time savings to installations with large numbers of thermostats. Automatically adjusting multiple time zones allows the management of geographically dispersed systems from a single location. Usage logs with timestamps can be used to generate detailed management reports and further off line data analysis. GNU remotecontrol also provides detailed access controls for different user groups, role based authentication, encryption, and other features that are not often found in similar software.

It is our considered opinion the coming together for these three groups (information technology, mechanical engineering, and financial officer) is what GNU remotecontrol can best deliver to the public. We are helping to build these groups into a team. Each of these groups have their education and certifications in their respective area of expertise. They all need each other, to successfully run their facilities and accomplish the goals of their organization. One group cannot try to accomplish the role of another group, nor can they risk a guess in areas outside their expertise. They need to work with each other, as a unified group, as a team, to determine what their organization should implement. The group members who can communicate effectively with others will succeed using GNU remotecontrol to optimize the operation of their HVAC systems.

What barriers do you think exist before wider adoption of GNU remotecontrol will occur?

The marketplace has many different network connected HVAC thermostats, each combining bits of different technologies. There is little standardization. There are plenty of technology standards, technology organizations, and industry associations speaking to the network connected HVAC thermostat concept. A standards based network connected HVAC thermostat is still quite expensive today, because the market cannot settle on a single technology standard and begin large scale manufacturing. The same principle occurred in data networking, once the combination of ethernet and IP addressing was selected. We make the following controversial statement. Once the market chooses a single set of end-to-end technology standards to build the network connected HVAC thermostat, there will be many manufacturers making and selling network connected HVAC thermostats. This statement we make is controversial, due to the widespread argument about price versus technology features being the driver for maturing the network connected HVAC thermostat aspect of the smart grid. The circles of this argument are mostly either an industry push or a market demand mindset. The desire for this technology has yet to present a clear pattern, because technology standardization is not present, which is preventing the start of widespread manufacturing.

The features available in each product will go up and cost of each product will go down, as in any other product offering where there is direct competition. Essentially, the same turn of events which radically occurred with data network routers and switches approximately fifteen years ago is about to occur with the network connected HVAC thermostat. Select a standard, 'commoditization' of design and manufacturing kick in, and the market demand increases due to lower prices. This turn of events will most likely play out in North America, Japan, possibly South Korea, while now occurring in India. India is now retooling their entire national electric grid, to be complete within the next fifteen years. It is not a matter of if the network connected HVAC thermostat will be a viable member of a smart grid. It is a matter of when this membership will occur. We expect several developed nations to have made these decisions within the next ten years from now, along with big milestones occurring in all financial markets, social communities, and developed nations within the next two years. These milestones will collectivity accelerate adoption of the network connected HVAC thermostat in residential, commercial, and industrial facilities.

The leading HVAC topic of today is the numbers game. Numbers, in the form of who is paying for the energy bill, who is paying for the hardware to run the HVAC system, and who is paying for the paychecks of the people operating the organizations many HVAC systems. Adding the network connected aspect to the HVAC thermostat requires the mechanical engineering group to work hand-in-hand with information technology group. The network connected aspect also means information technology is now inseparable from the effort to operate HVAC systems. The mechanical engineering and the information technology groups each must become comfortable with this work arrangement, to successfully operate network connected HVAC thermostats. The good news for any organization is the rising cost of energy will cause anyone considering the costs of HVAC systems to only purchase from suppliers and employ staff who can collaborate effectively to achieve operating cost savings.

Why did you choose the AGPL as GNU remotecontrol's license?

We spent nine months researching which license to select for this software project, along with years of looking beforehand. We spoke with GNU about AGPL. They talked us through some of the scenarios which could ultimately occur with this software project, in the long-term, along with what has occurred with other software projects, in the past. The option for anyone to take this software, alter it within the parameters of the AGPL license, all while providing a complete understanding of those alterations, is quite attractive to us. Richard Stallman states, "Any software without a license is not free." We agree with this statement.

How can users (technical or otherwise) help contribute to GNU remotecontrol?

We foresee the project will grow to include additional software development languages, along with further language translation of both the user interface display language and the project documentation. We have a pretty good development test environment now, but would like to setup a more robust test environment. We would like to include an innovation aspect to our test environment, where contributors can work through what-if scenarios and improve the software. We are looking for a Development Server Administrator. We welcome contributions from both PHP Developer and MySQL Developer folks.

What's the next big thing for GNU remotecontrol?

Short answer, data privacy within the smart grid. A credible, dependable, and trustworthy software project must responsibly address the associated data privacy involved with such a large scale transformation to any culture. Would you ever want anything less? The success of the smart grid is resting upon effectively predicting demand for energy consumption and executing dynamic demand response. Successfully predicting demand for energy consumption involves recording historical energy consumption, for identifying trends of probable future energy demand. This historical usage is where the data privacy matter is centered. The reality is historical user data will be stored by the public utility. It is only a matter of how the residential customer wants their specific user data handled.

Long answer, helping people understand the data privacy need within the smart grid and understanding how to achieve it. People ask, “why are we doing this?” Our answer is it needs to be done, as a matter of social responsibility. Need can be a controversial term, depending on how the term is used. The word “need” is never controversial when referring to a customer or business defining what they require. The phrase caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) is a concern when considering altering a national electric grid. Successfully selecting and implementing technologies to work together is no small task. The best way we can see helping is providing both source code and collaboration. The phrase caveat lector (let the reader beware) is suitable to any culture desiring to alter their national electric grid. Enabling the world to read about both best practices and source code for energy management software helps to successfully purchase either hardware or professional services.

The simplicity of installing the HVAC thermostat has been well proven for many years. The local home supply store has many different options available for purchase. The network connected aspect is where rubber meets the road today. GNU remotecontrol began and continues with the understanding the three roles of financial, mechanical, and informational must successfully work together as a group within any organization. We do not claim to have all of the answers, because we know we do not have all of the answers, nor will we ever have all of the answers. Companies come and go. The most wonderful technology of today, from a company which ceases to exist tomorrow, does not help anyone the day afterwards. We are working on the software, while gathering the best practices, hoping the hardware will standardize. The hardware will one day standardize, as the marketplace wants the network connected HVAC thermostat. GNU remotecontrol is attempting to help smooth the road between today and the realization of the next generation electric grid.

Enjoyed this interview? Check out our previous entry in this series featuring the developers of Tox.im.

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