Centralised vs. distributed smart home systems - What is the right choice?

Box or not a box – That’s the question…

To make it dramatic from the beginning: What would happen, if the government would fail from one day to the other? Right – Panic would break lose but the world would still turn, due to the private sector.

What does a failing government have to do with a centralised and/or a distributed system? Easy – whilst the government is the central point of a country, the private sector is acting as the distributed player in this scenario. Whilst government-owned institutions and services would stop working after a collapse, the companies and institutions which are not involved in a governmental collapse are (even if only theoretically) functional.

And this is the point also for centralised and distributed systems. But let’s have a look first at the two different systems:

Centralised Systems

woman holding phone monitoring smart devices in her home
Central device for smart home solutions

With growing distribution of Smart Home solutions, the smart home has arrived in more and more households. “Switch off the light!” will soon be heard more often than the question asked, whether the light has been switched off or not (a common nightmare, once departed for your holidays). Clearly, this makes life more comfortable and give the feeling of owning a little bit of the future, which is yet to come. Having said that, we have not talked about the further advantages, such as the shopping list items, which Amazon can have delivered to you within hours, or the recommendations for goods, that Google thinks we need. Besides controlling our houses, we also have funny gadgets to play around with.

“Where there is light, there must be shadow”

What do the systems of centralised solutions have in common? Right – They are all controlled by one central controller. On the bright side, the easy user interface allows to have all devices connected and configured in no time. The easy user interfaces allow even children to configure their smart homes according to their wishes.

However, the drawback of these nice and easy systems are also what makes them so interesting – All is controlled by a central controller. Let’s just think about what would happen, if the devices, which you talk to would stop listening, because they are broken, the battery is flat or your dog was buried your smart box in the garden. Voice control would first of all not be the same, if you have nobody listing to it and worse, nothing would be controllable. And if the devices is still working, do not forget that as the configuration is very easy, changes by unauthorised persons, which could negatively impact the whole installation, will be a constant threat to normal functioning (Even South Park and Burger King did it).

Furthermore, looking at the fast moving developments, devices and their technologies usually do not have a longer life span than the house you are living in. Result is that your smart homes needs constant upgrades, which will create extra costs. Also, consider yourself as lucky, if you only have to invest in upgrades and not a whole system (click on the link for more information).

So in short: Newly released centralised systems are easy to configure, install and add a futuristic touch to your home. However, it is yet unforeseen, what will happen in the future with these systems, not even taking into consideration when the central controller is not functioning anymore.

Distributed Systems

diagram representing distributed system knx
Example of a distributed system

Smart homes and buildings have been existing for more than 30 years – Difference is that we have never noticed them. And not noticing them is the best thing that can happen: The user cannot make changes to the system and thereby ruin the installation, energy savings reach another level and the level of comfort is increasing tremendously. In the end, the user does not have to shout to any boxes to have the light switched off, when the house is left – Timers and sensors will do that automatically.

We might argue that not having a magical device we talk to might be a curse or blessing, but one thing is certain – If the central device breaks down, the remaining devices still function, keeping the room smart, which is especially very important in commercially used buildings, such as offices or hotels. This is ensured by the decentralised nature of these systems.

But also distributed systems have their cons. Foremost, in order to have a smart system installed, a professional installer is required, who integrates the system. Also, in most cases, when changes are necessary, a professional installer needs to be called.

“But how about the sustainability of a distributed system? – Well, here is the key!”

The best example is the KNX system – The system now exists almost 30 years and is the most used system in Europe and China. All devices, which are supporting the KNX technology can and are still being used in smart homes and buildings. The special feature of this system is that more than 400 manufacturers are providing a big range of devices, which are all working together. Outcome is that a distributed installation does not require any upgrades, which might affect the whole installation. Also, once the house has been made smart, it stays like this. Therefore, in terms of sustainability, the distributed system wins by far!

So which system is the right system for me?

The answer is as often: It depends on what you want and need.

The centralised system, with a central controller, allows a fast installation of your smart devices. Furthermore, the configuration of the installation and modifications afterwards are easy to be taken care of. Lastly, having one of those boxes gives a futuristic touch to your home. Downsides are that if the controller breaks, the whole installation does not work anymore, it can be tampered with very easily and future upgrades might limit its functionality.

The distributed system is a one which runs in the background and allows the seamless integration of all applications and functions in a smart home and building. Whilst making your home smart, it is also the more sustainable choice as it does not have a central controller, which can break down. In case of malfunctioning of one device, the whole installation would still run. Furthermore, the KNX system exists now for almost 30 years, and has many devices available, making it future proof. Downside is that for making your home smart, in most cases a professional installation is required, done by a system integrator.

Now the choice is yours…