Smarter Infrastructure: Investing for the future

Build new and rebuild old stuff as if your life depended on it…

[Originally posted on the now defunct IBM Smarter Computing blog on 14 October 2014]

In a previous blog post, I discussed how I explained Smarter Infrastructure to my daughter and her friends because they wondered what I did for a living after seeing me working in my home office. I’d now like to take that explanation a step further and discuss smarter infrastructure using an analogy from the physical world. In this post I’ll describe for you how I designed and built my energy-efficient house and the effects that smarter architecture and design have on its daily operations and cost profile.


Without detailing too much historical perspective, suffice it to say that twice in my life I almost became an architect for the built environment. But the fickle finger of fate intervened and I became a digital architect instead. Thankfully, I was able to exercise my interests in physical architecture, alternative energy and passive and active solar technologies by designing and building my own house. I spent about two decades investigating best practices, the local building codes and alternative building technologies. I spent another two years building the house. This story is an example of why we need to invest in smarter digital and physical infrastructures in America and the world, in my humble opinion.

Location, location, location

I was very lucky to find a parcel of land in the California foothills that has excellent southern and western exposures (for solar energy exploitation) and beautiful views of the Central Valley. Once the land was secured, I started to develop the house plans based on the topology of the parcel, based on variations on a theme I conceived during my high school senior project in mechanical drawing.

Green design for the future

I initially considered using rammed earth or straw bales as the primary construction method due to their inherent “greenness,” but the seismic engineering requirements  in California and lack of expertise in the local county building department ruled them out. I eventually arrived at a combination of technologies: insulated concrete forms (ICFs) for the walls and a structural insulated panel system (SIPS) for the roof. The passive solar design called for the roof to be of a vented design (similar to a “cold-roof” concept but in reverse, given the insolation exposure in California), with overhangs to the south and west calculated to shade the walls in the peak of the summer heat. Passive solar design also meant that the downstairs levels would be built into the earth at the crest of the slope.

ICFBuilding a house foundation with Insulated Concrete Forms.  I built my whole house this way. Photo courtesy of FoxBlocks, Inc. –

I used recycled steel joists imbedded in the concrete walls to support the upper-level floors. All floors in the house are concrete on steel pan deck and are radiators in the hydronic heating system. Living areas are finished with stamped, stained and sealed concrete while the sleeping areas utilize either tile,  berber carpet with no padding or floating wood flooring (to provide a modicum of comfort while also allowing for the radiant heat to transfer somewhat efficiently to the rooms).

I installed a split-zone air conditioning system that is sized at one-third of “normal” capacity. Both the heating and cooling systems were engineered to account for the huge thermal mass and high degree of insulation in the wall and roof systems.SIPS Installing a SIPS roof panel. Photo courtesy of Premier SIPS –

To illustrate the value of the thermal mass and insulation, let me offer the following example: to keep the house at 68oF when it is 32oF outside, the hydronic system circulates water at 90oF in the floors. The house also features a split-zone air recirculation system that uses passive intake cooling to keep the indoor air fresh (ICF houses are notoriously air-tight as compared to “stick-built” ones).

So, you may be asking at this point, what are the effects of spending all this time and energy and money on these newer technologies?

ICF room with steel joistsICF walls with imbedded steel beams and steel pan deck flooring for a data center in Oregon. Similar to how I built my house. Photo courtesy of Fox Blocks, Inc. –

Unfortunately, rapid depletion of my building funds prevented me from instrumenting the house from an Internet of Things standpoint, so I just have anecdotal information on how the house performs. But I think you’ll agree that the anecdotal information is fairly impressive.

In our 100oF-plus summers, my electric bill is one-third that of my neighbors, which is driven primarily by air-conditioning (A/C) requirements. But I think the most impressive example is from the winter season, because it’s somewhat easier to survive heat than cold.

A couple of winters ago, prior to the exceptional drought that California and the US southwest, we had a very strong, wet storm as a result of the “Pineapple Express” that dumped lots of heavy, wet snow on the western slope of the Sierras. Usually we get a couple of inches of snow, which melts in hours, but this particular storm was very cold and we received almost a foot of snow at the 2500-foot elevation level. The cold air persisted for over 72 hours and the heavy snow took out tree limbs and power lines, so my house did not have any way to heat itself for three days (no power to circulate the water in the hydronic heating system).

In those three days, my house lost only 5°F: it went from 68°F to 63°F. I think that is very impressive.

What have I learned about smarter infrastructure?

The takeaways from my experience in designing and building an energy efficient home are many, but two stand out:

  • Investments in smarter infrastructure (CAPEX) can significantly reduce recurring energy expenses (OPEX).
  • Investments in smarter infrastructure can improve continuity of operations in periods of stress or disruption.

I believe this physical example applies directly to the world of digital infrastructure. How so? Here are a couple of thoughts and recommendations for organizations that want to make their digital infrastructure more efficient and resilient:

  • Look long-term: Understand we are in a “new normal,” and design and architect accordingly. Build resilience and flexibility into your systems and data centers. IBM architects and engineers can help you do so from the server, storage and network perspectives. They can also advise and consult on data center energy efficiency, site selection and construction (new or retrofit).
  • Do detailed engineering and multi-year comprehensive financial models to justify investments in smarter infrastructure. Do not be driven by annual budgets or short-term acquisition costs. Doing the right analysis job (from both technical and financial standpoints) requires minimal extra effort, but the payoffs are huge.

Thinking ahead

Future plans for the house (by prior design) call for the addition of solar systems: a photovoltaic system to reduce, if not eliminate, my electric bill and a hot-water system to augment or replace the propane water heater (a 75 gallon high-efficiency unit with a heat transfer coil inside as the hydronic heat source). I am also considering a battery back-up system and a small propane generator.

The eventual goal is to be as independent and self-sufficient as I can from the energy perspective, given a fixed income in retirement and the projected rise in energy costs (both direct and indirect) in the future.

In these times of massive change and adaptation, how will you prepare your digital infrastructure for the future? How will you make it smarter and more resilient? I hope the story of my house, as a physical example of smarter infrastructure, will motivate you going forward. Let me know what you think.

Explaining Smarter Infrastructure to your kids

If you had to explain to kids why infrastructure matters, what would you say to help them understand? Infrastructure is so important to our lives, so perhaps we should pay a little more attention to it.

[originally posted on the IBM Smarter Computing Blog site on April 24, 2014]


Some of my daughter’s high school friends occasionally come over to our house in the afternoons to do homework or get ready for athletic practice or events. Often, they see me working on my laptop or hear me on a conference call in my home office and invariably the question comes up, “What does your dad do?”


As an IT infrastructure architect, I struggled with an explanation for the first few times and then finally came up with a way to explain my job function through a Socratic approach. So now when I get asked what I do, I reply with a series of questions:

  • “Do you know how and where the electricity comes from when you turn on a light?”

They say “No.”

  • “Do you know how the fresh water gets to your faucet when you turn one on?”


  • “Do you know where the sewage goes when you flush the toilet?


  • “Do you know how a text or picture gets from your phone to your friends’ phones?”


Then I say, “I do all those things that you don’t see that make your phones actually work!”

They reflect a bit, usually smile and say, “That’s pretty cool!’

And I then say, “Yes … yes it is.”

Sometimes we have a short discussion about the various sources and methods of generating and distributing electricity, and I use the opportunity to discuss alternative, cleaner energy and the need for a smarter grid. Or we talk about how clean water gets to the faucet and the issues surrounding fresh water around the world. Or we talk about how sewage is removed and treated (some jurisdictions are turning it into drinking water that is “certified organic”). And sometimes we talk about big servers, storage, networks and cloud computing and how those digital infrastructure elements enable smartphones, bank ATMs and airline reservations.

Infrastructure matters

The point here is that infrastructure matters, but most people do not know, understand or care about infrastructure (that is, until it breaks or goes away). Yet it is vitally important in our physical and digital lives in the Anthropocene epoch. If for nothing else, infrastructure matters because we humans are altering the climate of our only planetary home in ways we do not yet fully understand by our increasing use of infrastructure in its many and varied forms.

So if infrastructure is so important to our lives, perhaps we should pay a little more attention to it.

We can define infrastructure as all the elements of a designed, engineered and built environment (a complex system of systems) that are generally overlooked or not readily apparent to the casual observer or consumer of the products and services said infrastructure provides.

Paying attention to the infrastructure can reduce risks as well as save and earn money—all good things for both people and organizations, especially if we can identify the unintended consequences of our actions, preferably well in advance, so that we might choose better alternatives.

Maximizing value in an infrastructure

To best assist clients from the IT infrastructure perspective, the system architects in IBM deal with both the holistic aspects of a given system as well as the individual physical components that make up the system.City

As is generally true in most systems, optimizing individual components usually degrades the overall system, whether we are talking about cloud computing, grid computing, smarter cities or natural systems. So we examine the role each component has to play to contribute to and balance the overall system and therefore provide maximum value for the investment in the whole system.

In a business environment, to maximize value means looking at the components from two major dimensions: one of quality and one of time.

In the IT world, looking at the components of a system in qualitative terms is generally described as dealing with the nonfunctional requirements (NFRs). NFRs can best be thought of as those attributes of a system or component thereof that answer the how? or how well? question, especially as contrasted with the what? question (which is dealt with by identifying and addressing the functional requirements).

The IBM system architect community has spent almost a decade perfecting a client-focused consultative methodology to help clients address the NFRs of a system and its components. The “fit-for-purpose” methodology helps clients select the best hardware (servers, storage subsystems, network architecture) to meet the business requirements of the system (driven by the NFRs) to provide maximum value.

But value is not static, nor are businesses, government organizations or people. So we have to add the element of time to the effort. Introducing the time element helps us look at the overall costs and benefits of the solution throughout its lifecycle (more on this in a future blog post, perhaps).

Moving toward future systems

To return to the physical analogy concept, I like to think of the information systems in Winchester Mystery Houseorganizations today to be somewhat like the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Just like poor, nutty Mrs. Winchester, we have organically evolved our IT systems over the years without much architecture such that now we have a maintenance and integration nightmare on our hands. Note that the these core systems that “run the business” still make up a large part of an organization’s IT capital and operating expenses. They also tend to trap data within the disparate systems, hampering an organizations’ ability to make wiser decisions through the use of analytics or “big data.”

The value of infrastructure

How we design and operate our physical and digital infrastructures for the 21st century matters very much to people. After all, people are the core of businesses, and people create governments.  If you are contemplating making your infrastructure smarter, from the IT or the city standpoint, you just may benefit from a conversation (or more) with your local IBM system architect.

Have you ever thought about why infrastructure matters? How would you teach your kids about smarter infrastructure?