A small, covert team of engineers at Microsoft cast aside suggestions that the company spend US$60 million to turn its 500-acre headquarters into a smart campus to achieve energy savings and other efficiency gains. Instead, applying an “Internet of Things meets Big Data” approach, the team invented a data-driven software solution that is slashing the cost of operating the campus’ 125 buildings. The software, which is saving Microsoft millions of dollars, has been so successful that the company and its partners are now helping building managers across the world deploy the same solution. And with commercial buildings consuming an estimated 40 percent of the world’s total energy, the potential is huge.
By Jennifer Warnick
1: The Visionary
“This is my office,” says the sticker on Darrell Smith’s laptop, and it is.
With his “office” tucked under his arm, Microsoft’s director of facilities and energy is
constantly shuttling between meetings all over the company’s 500-acre, wooded campus
in Redmond, Washington.
But Smith always returns to one unique place.
The Redmond Operations Center (often called “the ROC”) is located in a drab, nondescript
office park. Inside is something unique – a new state-of-the-art “brain” that is transforming
Microsoft’s 125-building, 41,664-employee headquarters into one of the smartest corporate
campuses in the world.
Smith and his team have been working for more than three years to unify an incongruent network
of sensors from different eras (think several decades of different sensor technology
and dozens of manufacturers). The software that he and his team built strings together
thousands of building sensors that track things like heaters, air conditioners, fans,
and lights – harvesting billions of data points per week. That data has given the team
deep insights, enabled better diagnostics, and has allowed for far more intelligent decision
making. A test run of the program in 13 Microsoft buildings has provided staggering results
– not only has Microsoft saved energy and millions in maintenance and utility costs,
but the company now is hyper-aware of the way its buildings perform.
It’s no small thing – whether a damper is stuck in Building 75 or a valve is leaky in Studio
H – that engineers can now detect (and often fix with a few clicks) even the tiniest
issues from their high-tech dashboard at their desks in the ROC rather than having to
jump into a truck to go find and fix the problem in person.
If the facility management world were Saturday morning cartoons, Smith and his team have
effectively flipped the channel from “The Flintstones” to “The Jetsons.” Instead of using
stone-age rocks and hammers to keep out the cold, Smith’s team invented a solution that
relies on data to find and fix problems instantly and remotely.
“Give me a little data and I’ll tell you a little,” he says. “Give me a lot of data and I’ll
save the world.”
Smith joined Microsoft in December of 2008. His previous work managing data centers for Cisco
had given him big ideas about how buildings could be smarter and more efficient, but
until he came to Microsoft he lacked the technical resources to bring them to life. What
he found at Microsoft was support for these ideas on all sides – from his boss to a handful
of savvy facilities engineers. They all knew buildings could be smarter, and together
they were going to find a way to make it so.
Smith has a finger-tapping restlessness that prevents him from sitting through an entire
movie. His intensity comes paired with the enthusiastic, genial demeanor of a favorite
bartender or a softball buddy (and indeed, he does play first base for a company softball
team, the Microsoft Misfits).
Ever punctual and an early riser, Smith lives near Microsoft headquarters and has taken to
spending a few quiet hours at his desk on Sundays.
“I call it my den because I live a mile away. I come here, I make coffee, I have the building
to myself,” Smith says.
His family and the people who know him best understand. Smart buildings are his passion,
and everything in his life has been moving toward finding ways for companies the world
over to get smarter about managing their buildings (which will help them save money and
reduce their energy use).
“Smart buildings will become smart cities,” Smith says. “And smart cities will change everything.”