Joined at the Hip
How two privately owned companies are changing the convergence paradigm
- By Jerry Cordasco, Jeff Brummett
- Jun 01, 2006
security without question it is the buzz phrase defining security applications and opportunities during the early part of this century. Today, more than at any point in our industry's history, electronic security is a world filled with choices. To begin with, one can choose from a variety of disciplines including video, intrusion and access control. Within each of these disciplines, are a seemingly endless number of choices in suppliers alone. Once a supplier is chosen, designing or specifying the type of electronic security for a given facility can be equally complex.
Dealers continue to search for the holy grail of video and access control integration that offers high-end performance solutions at middle-of-the-road prices.
Some buildings would be best served by the installation of only one of these disciplines. Some buildings require a pairing, while others will find the optimum protection from a blend of all. The task of risk assessment and system design can seem daunting in the face of these choices.
In a world of numerous and complex choices, two buzzwords aimed at streamlining and simplifying these choices have appeared -- convergence and integrated security.
For many, convergence is simply a new word to describe what was formerly known as integration. Perhaps the fact that no one has ever really been able to adequately describe or explain integration has led us to source a new word. In fact, not long ago, the word interface was used to describe what is now known as integration or was it integration that was known as interface.
Whether you call it interface, integration or convergence, the truth is that there is now an added dimension to the design of overall security measures. This dimension brings together multiple disciplines and technologies in a way that ideally creates a sum much greater than the parts.
While the concept of integrated security sounds reasonable, practical, even profitable, the problem with integrated security where access control and digital video is concerned is that few manufactures have approached integration with any serious strategy toward converging their cross-industry technologies.
While these two systems (video and access control) have been mated for many years, the method and depth with which it is being done has changed. Each system has its own unique set of characteristics and applications. Video can be a very effective deterrent and has been proven invaluable for investigative purposes.
Access control is, for lack of another word, a more proactive system, intent upon keeping the unwanted out and keeping track of who is or has been in. When used together, they provided a powerful solution. The question is, what does "used together" really mean?
Using Video and Access Control Together
In many ways, video and access control are different, but as is often said, opposites attract. On a basic level and as with many other systems, access and video can be interfaced fairly easily using simple dry contact inputs and outputs. The net result is an ability to relate events -- such as a denied access (someone attempting to gain access to an area using a lost or stolen credential) -- with a camera. The access event triggers a specific relay contact, which acts as an input to the DVR or video system.
This activates a camera preset, causing the camera to position itself toward the door were the violation occurred and an operator/guard can view the live video, hoping to see who the person is using the card. If the person is no longer in view of the camera, a clip of video can be retrieved and reviewed. This is a simple and effective means of inter-relating these two systems, but in no way can one really refer to this as integration. It would work in a small project, but would quickly become unwieldy in a larger facility. The number and physical location of the relays alone make it impractical to install and very difficult to maintain in larger facilities.
Local system integrators quickly learn there are significant limitations to I/O-only device integrations. Of course, this is the level of integration most manufactures tout. Part of the reason is that most manufactures are focused on a single discipline.
Access control guys don't do video. Video guys don't do access control.
Consequently, the easy man's fix is integration through I/O device control. I/O interfacing is simple enough and probably sufficient for many low-end applications. But for powerful integration capable of producing real management tools, video products need to be able to talk to access control products. Few experienced integrators would argue otherwise. However, try finding a video system that actually can talk, software to software, with an access control system. It's next to impossible.
Even when one is found, inevitably one product or the other doesn't have the total performance package the customer is looking for. One will do certain things, but not others.
So the questions are why integrate these systems and how can it be done best?
Doing What's Best
Having the two systems communicate more directly with each other through some form of data exchange brings the coupling closer to what most would agree becomes true integration. At this level, in order for this to happen, real technology partnerships begin to play a much more important role. When systems are interconnected at a software level, rather than interfaced through relays, performance can be significantly enhanced. Activity in one system can more easily be related to output in another without the need for much physical wiring.
In addition, using well-designed information architecture, the user interfaces of the systems can be made to be much more practical, more functional and more intuitive.
When integration at this level takes place, perhaps the single, most important factor to consider is how usable the resulting integration will be? Many manufacturers of video systems make available a software development kit, which provides information to those who wish to integrate with their system. But in reality, this is merely a good starting point. The real benefit in integration between systems such as access control and video comes when companies partner and work closely together to design and develop a solution based upon a thorough understanding of customer needs.
For instance, an access control system is often used as the central monitoring system for a facility, displaying alarms such as doors propped open, doors forced open, invalid attempts at access and anti-pass back violations. Much of this information would be rendered more valuable and provide for more appropriate response if coupled with the ability to view video, perhaps with a single click. Retrieval of video from a DVR or even many DVRs, and the ability to view those clips from the same workstation or client, without having to exit one application and launch another, can save precious time in an emergency.
Using software tools, such as ActiveX, can allow technology partners to build truly integrated graphical user interfaces where live or recorded video is displayed within the access control application. Once stored video has been viewed by the operator, the clip can be stored on a local hard drive, facilitating later viewing without the need to once again stream it from the DVR. This results in less bandwidth usage and allows access to important video clips, even after being overwritten by the DVR where they were originally stored.
How those video clips are stored and how easily they can be scanned, selected and viewed is yet another factor to be taken into consideration when implementing an integration scheme or selecting the best technology. Some systems are able to store the video clips directly within an industry standard database such as MSSQL.
The advantage here is that a wide variety of tools are readily available to manage this type of database, and the database itself is shared with the access control system, bringing the partner systems even closer to being one. This level of integration enables the customer to enjoy extended levels of use, both practical and functional.
Finding the Right Fit
The problem has been that access control companies continue to make access control systems and video surveillance companies continue to make video surveillance systems. The two rarely meet. Occasionally, one company will buy another with the grand idea of convergence.
Usually, a power struggle emerges between the two. Someone wins. Someone loses. The result is, one product line continues to get research and development at its former, cutting-edge pace, and the other product line begins its predictable decline. A number of classic video manufacturers have introduced or are about to introduce their own access control systems and vice versa. Often, the result is that the overall performance of the system is throttled by the weakest of the technologies used, rather than the desired sum being greater than the parts.
Meanwhile, dealers continue to search for the holy grail of video and access control integration that offers high-end performance solutions at middle of the road prices.
American Sentry Guard began taking seriously the notion of finding a high-end access control product whose parent company would be willing to try an out-of-the-box solution. Why not try something old fashion -- teamwork.
Compass Technologies had a sophisticated product and high-profile customers like Rutgers University, The St. Petersburg Times, the Treasury Department for the state of New Jersey and Littleton Public Schools, the Colorado school district that includes Colombine. Littleton and its director of security Guy Grace made Compass Technologies their choice for access control after the tragic and fatal shootings that rocked the nation to its core in April 1999.
As talks progressed and ideas began to flow, the more convinced each company became of the other. Both companies held the same core values. Each was privately owned and prided themselves on out-performing with other products product design, technical support, sales support and the ability to make quick decisions. The end result was a mutual commitment to develop a new fully integrated access control and video surveillance system capable of bringing to market the most complete integrated product of its kind with high-end performance capabilities on both sides of the fence.
This article originally appeared in the June 2006 issue of Security Products, pgs. 76-80.