The Proprietary Trap

Open Architecture 101 as it generally relates to access control and security technology

The word “open” brings a certain degree of cache to discussions regarding computing technologies. Generally used to describe a degree of availability and interoperability around both software and hardware, it’s the de facto standard for most network and computing equipment as we can purchase hard drives, keyboards and other devices designed to operate in an ad-hoc or a-la-carte manner from any wide array of providers.

It wasn’t always like this, however.

A History of Proprietary to Open

The entire computing world at one time was strictly proprietary. In other words, the election to use one piece of software or hardware dictated the requirement to get additional expansion and support from the single provider for the lifetime of that purchase. With the advent of the personal computer and the standardization of Windows as a common networking and enterprise platform—what was once the private domain of IBM and only a few others became the domain of anyone.

This change in processing naturally found its way into the integrated security equipment industry, which was totally proprietary at the time. By now, commercially available computers could be purchased anywhere.

Next, was the “opening” of data. Once the market realized the inherent value in breaking away from overpriced, proprietary computers, they demanded more flexibility. The industry complied by providing openly available databases and structures that allowed customers or third parties to share the data.

The concept of open architecture in the security world moved quantum leaps forward with HID’s introduction to the market with a common, inexpensive standard Wiegand proximity line of readers and cards. Now, the market enjoyed the value of purchasing computers of their choice as well as compatible card and reader technology that served to open the market away from proprietary bit formats on cards and proprietary readers.

Today, the most important move in the security integration equipment sector, specifically as it relates to access control, is the mammoth move toward being able to claim some degree of open architecture within one’s system offering. Some providers are perfectly comfortable explaining to customers that they are open architecture because they allow customers to purchase computers, enterprise databases, cards and readers from any other source while maintaining a proprietary lock on the single most expensive element of the access control system, the field-based controlling hardware. Others have gone so far as to invent proprietary web servers to place on the network and label them as “network appliances,” assuming that the acceptance of such should go without question.

The truth of the matter, though, is being well-camouflaged by providers that want to use the term “open” in the marketing of their product while they creatively fight off any future competition by ensnaring a customer into a proprietary model. Unfortunately for the customer and our industry as a whole, the truth will not become available until the customer becomes frustrated and begins to look for other options.

Preaching and Demonstrating the Value

Since 1997, Open Options has been preaching and demonstrating the value of having an open architecture system to customers. Because of this, a few industry veterans recognized the increasing value in being open and set a course to fulfill the value offering of open architecture within the access control industry. Mercury Security, as well as a couple of others, set out on a business mission of providing a truly open field-controlling hardware panel set. The others have since fallen out of favor, so Mercury enjoys the result of having in excess of one million control boards in their combined install base—vastly surpassing any of the single proprietary companies offerings—as well as having in excess of a dozen active software development firms writing controlling software to work in conjunction with the field hardware offering.

Customers now have the option to purchase open computers, storage devices, cards, readers and controlling field hardware from many available outlets, in direct contrast to proprietary offerings that limit customers to dealing with only one provider. Due to the sensitive nature of security, the “keys to the castle” cannot be made as openly available as commercial and consumer products, but they do not have to be single source proprietary, either. The security industry, therefore, must continue to develop standards and strive to open those venues that provide customer value while providing protection so that the castle’s keys are not openly available to the general public.

With the installation of Mercury hardware the customer can rest assured that they have numerous options in software providers that can work in conjunction with the hardware, which is in direct contrast to the customer that opts to purchase proprietary hardware from the proprietary carriers.

Buzz Words Debunked

Since we have marginally defined open architecture as it relates to the access control industry, we should dive into the facts surrounding the buzz of terms like “web-enabled” and “network appliance” that are so flippantly thrown around. Many of these systems claim, “With this web-enabled network appliance, you don’t need to load any software.” Really?

As a general rule, few, if any, software programs or software programmers are perfect. All available operating systems issue numerous patches throughout the lifetime of the product.

Most providers stress that any internet browser can run their software, yet fail to mention that the software itself is proprietary. In this case, something camouflaged as an open product indeed lays the proprietary trap so that these providers can “lock customers in.”

Proprietary hardware and software is anything but open architecture in the design of an access control system. Sure, one can run their browser on their open architecture computer to control open architecture readers but everything in between is proprietary to the core. Others misuse the term “open” by simple misrepresentation led about by their company’s integration of other third party systems. Just because integration at the software level is possible with other software does not mean that you have an open architecture system.

More Than a Concept

Open architecture in access control is more than a concept. It is a set of operational constraints that restrict to the minimum any core element of the entire system that cannot be sourced from others. In today’s truly open architecture offerings, the software will always remain proprietary; however, it constitutes the single, least expensive element of an access control system and can be readily replaced without removing or manipulating a single piece of hardware. The customer can move forward knowing that 95 percent of their investment in system topology and architecture is secure from planned and expensive obsolescence by the provider.

There are numerous demonstrable examples of the value to the customer in open architecture. In one situation, some customers purchased systems that actually contained open architecture hardware from Mercury, yet it was sold as proprietary. These disgruntled customers quickly learned that numerous software products were available to control that hardware and hundreds of entire systems had been migrated to different software and providers. Under this open architecture constraint, the software provider is incentivized to provide only the best solution, so the development emphasis is placed on providing the best software product.

Recent acquisitions within the access control industry have led to the obsolescence of one of the major proprietary vendors. With thousands of systems in place, others look to find ways and methods to keep those unfortunate customers locked in. Others are working diligently to provide those customers with a ready solution as long as they are willing to be locked in with them. True to their core, Mercury Security has seen the problem and addressed it with a direct board replacement. This solution opens those systems, so that customers can no longer be dictated to in terms of support expenses, system additions, etc.

In other words, some proprietary vendors are more than anxious to solve this obsolescence with a proprietary offering of their own, thereby offering the customer the chance to jump out of one proprietary skillet into another proprietary fire. Using the Mercury Security solution, the customer moves beyond this trap of proprietary hardware into a modern system with modern functionality, features, and most importantly, a dynamic future of enhancements, network compatibility and options.

Open Options works to help customers that are in the proprietary trap of planned obsolescence to step forward with the least expensive option, save large investments into their formerly proprietary system and move forward with advanced technology of mobile interfaces.

There’s a considerable amount of marketing hype in the security industry regarding open architecture and network appliances. The two are not necessarily the same, and in many cases, are fundamentally different. Buyer beware.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Security Today.

About the Author

Steve Fisher is the president and CEO of Open Options Inc.

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