Systems Designers Push to Streamline Programming

Writing good programming code is essential for a project's ultimate success, as anyone in this industry will tell you. What people may not say is that the growing number of installable automation features can be detrimental to the programming process.
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Writing good programming code is essential for a project's ultimate success, as anyone in this industry will tell you. What people may not say is that the growing number of installable automation features can be detrimental to the programming process.

It is a reality that industry newcomersand even savvy veteransare vulnerable to the lure of the limitless integration possibilities; and this vulnerability may complicate your project and compromise your ultimate success.

In last month's issue (RS, February, p. 54), contributor Michael Taylor commented about the over-programming dilemma when he said, "Originally the scope [of a project] was "A-B-C," but it ended up being "A-B-C-D-E-F. This is what we call 'feature creep,' and it can be very damaging to your business." There are two types of software: the software that resides in the physical controller, and the actual graphical interface that is used to navigate. If custom integrators don't give equal weighting to both of those factors, some element of the project will probably suffer.

But writing good programming code is crucial for more than just immediate reasons. What if, in every project you undertake, you write incorrect or unreliable programming? You then run the risk of accruing a legacy of sub-par projects, a veritable death sentence if you are planning a healthy career.

Many professionals sitting behind computer monitors creating automation programming code-and those installing systems in the field-blame some of these idiosyncratic problems on the standards dearth within the programming realm. For some, there seems to be too many manufacturers making too many solutions built on proprietary platforms, with no unifying standards among them.

Custom designers face yet another problem during the programming stages: learning experience. No matter what size your company is, your focus will be on individual homes with individual clients. While there is crucial learning experience to be gleaned from projects of this ilk, there is no way to leverage this knowledge unless all of your future projects are identical. And the likeliness of that is low. So as years progress and projects stack up, you will gain keen insight in what makes an integration successful, but there is no way to guarantee that your next project will be even remotely similar to your last one or require identical programming.

Many industry veterans have recognized that these disparities pose obstacles for repeatable integration success. And some designers are taking action.

As soon as multiple companies entered the automation and control fray, vis--vis AMX, Elan and Crestron, universality was lost. Though these manufacturers bring diverse options, they also bring different programming languages and platforms.

Many people in the custom niche of the market contend that if prominent manufacturers could agree to utilize a single platform, they will have more time to improve feature and function sets, rather than trying to fill mass market product gaps with components with short shelf lives. The lack of IR code standards is one commonly lamented problem.

In addition, because the vitality of the residential systems market depends on sustainable solutions, some programmers contend that hardware providers get involved, and start looking at open source platforms and mainstream style programming. One of the major reasons manufacturers may need to consider open-source solutions is to optimize their resources. Relatively, resources are thin. The software industry trains people to operate in a universal manner, thereby creating a large pool of talent to tap upon. But as soon as a proprietary approach is taken and specialty niches of the market are carved, vast numbers of people are eliminated from a potential support pool. This elimination leads to thinned resources for product development, quality assurance and quality control.

Additionally, some professionals feel that industry dynamics market software as the cure for a problem, but that a more fruitful approach would be to view software as preventative medicine.

Robert Kranson, co-founder of Axiom Design, is an architectural electronic and lighting design firm in Pleasanton, California. Kranson is so devoted to the causes of streamlining integration programming, that he and his co-founder, Dana Dornsife, are developing an initiative devoted solely to a turnkey solution for residential automation and controls integration.

Their new platform, code named START (Simple Turnkey Automated Residential Technology), unifies control of lighting, entertainment, home theater, climate, Internet connectivity, and security systems with an intuitive interface for single-touch operation.

"The idea for this began with the question: what If you could take a look at the features that remain consistent from project to project, and create a configurable solution?" Kranson said.

With the START project Kranson and Dornsife are trying to create a method of programming where they are preparing, designing and testing the program in order to deliver repeatable solutions.

"In the last 10 years at Axiom, we've learned how to do things right, and we've also learned what is consistently being done wrong. We're taking that insight into creating a flexible platform that will consistently deliver," Kranson said.

The Axiom team hopes that START will be the first turnkey platform in the residential industry to combine proven design, engineering, complete documentation and reliable software applications to guide systems integrators through installations.

Rather than marketing this as a "custom one-off solution," Kranson wants the START Initiative to be considered as a configurable solution that will let integrators assign and appoint the system they desire, and leverage insight gained on each job.

There are many systems integrators who sell package deals to clients. How the START Initiative differs from that type of solution is by offering design, documentation and programming standards that will be applicable from the planning stages to the actual implementation.

"We're trying to build a solution is potentially scalable," Kranson said. "Over the past 10 years we've realized that some people sell packages because they don't want to give clients too many choices. But we recognize that clients will have numerous choices, and we're simply going to make those choices more reliable."

Kranson contends that by making decisions based on what the market can consistently support and repeat is the only way to ensure success and cultivate growth.

Another hope is that the industry will agree on an implementation process from an architecture standpoint, so that critical resources will be allocated for growing software solutions that empower hardware. Some in the industry assert that programming standards free up the resources for quality assurance and control. In turn, manufacturers can spend more time testing and confirming operability. "With standards, technical resources can be applied to single solutions rather than 'quick fix' type of temporary solutions that may become obsolete," Kranson said.

The main pitch towards selling integrated systems is simplicity. But making something simple is sometimes a very complicated process. Axiom believes that a move towards open source, streamlined programming is the best way to keep things simple and effective. "From a programming standpoint, if you have designed the project properly in order to meet initial and future needs, then you will have delivered an intuitive solution that does a fixed amount of things very well. At the end of the project you have succeeded in empowering your client, while allowing yourself the integral bandwidth that will act as the critical upgrade path," Kranson said. "On some of the large projects being done right now, when a client has to filter the features and functions that they want from the available feature set, you have defeated yourself. Wasn't the whole idea to make the entire process simple? There is nothing good that can come out of convolution."

Kranson's words reinforce the adage: Just because you can do 100 things in a project does not mean you should.

He hopes that this open-source approach is a means to augment the entire industry, an approach that will raise crucial questions about resources and articulate the importance forward thinking product development.

It is indisputable that the success of the systems integration industry is dependent upon creating forward-thinking solutions. The methodology on how to achieve that goal is what differs from one firm to the next. But Kranson is confident that Axiom's open source approach is intuitive and flexible enough to accommodate any future project. "I can't predict the future, but I can prepare my programming code accordingly. And with the right kind of programming I know I will never paint myself into one deep corner."

Margot Douaihy is managing editor of Residential Systems.

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