Integrating security systems using XML and APIs

The days of security systems operating in splendid isolation from other organizational systems are over. Customers are increasingly demanding that security system components interoperate with each other, with their IT systems, and with a host of other systems ranging from HR to marketing to building automation. They are not content to use outmoded, patchwork technologies to accomplish such integration. Rather, they are insisting on compliance with industry standards, open interfaces, and network-friendly, IP-based solutions that leverage existing resources to their best advantage.

That's why many manufacturers' products support an XML-based Application Programming Interface (API), a tool that allows them to interoperate easily with other IT and security systems.

Using the XML markup language for data exchange, integrators can, for example, connect an access control system to virtually any other information system that supports the HTTP protocol, regardless of underlying hardware, operating system, or programming languages.

API: Tools for Computer Interoperability
Before we begin to discuss what exactly XML does, it's best to understand what an API is. An API is a set of functions that one computer program makes available to other programs so they can talk to each other directly. Put another way, it is a set of tools for programmers that allows one computer system to use the services offered by another.

An example familiar to all of us would be online services such as Google Maps or MapQuest: both provide APIs that work behind the scenes to allow your company's website to invoke dynamic mapping capabilities from either of these online services.

The types of services provided by an API depend on the type of business that designed it, or the type of problem the underlying program was meant to solve. For example, a consumer-oriented business like Amazon provides a "retail API" that allows third parties to set up their own storefronts, with Amazon processing transactions in the background. Likewise, an online access control company like Brivo offers an API that provides a range of services for managing the relationship between identities and physical security. Both examples use the same underlying technologies, but for different business purposes.

XML: The Internet Translator
Now that we better understand what an API does, we can focus on how XML technology functions. XML is a "markup language" that uses "tags" to format, or mark up, data. (Tags are words enclosed in the "<" and ">" characters.) In the case of XML, however, the formatting is designed for other computers and software programs to read from a Web page. The process of using XML tags to mark up data is intended to let another computer system understand the meaning of the data being presented and take appropriate action as called for by the particular application of the technology.

One of the primary virtues of XML is that it is text-based, and, as such, is independent of programming languages, operating systems, development environments, and underlying computer or processor design. That's what makes it such a great choice for integrating otherwise disparate systems, and why it has enjoyed such popularity on the Internet, where systems of all types must be able to communicate effectively with each other.

Bringing XML into the security industry through a company's API is how broad interconnections between many types of applications, hardware platforms, operating systems, and device types are supported.

Taking Advantage of XML
In the case of our firm (Brivo), we have been able to integrate with numerous organizations via an XML-API interface. An example of this is the integration between Brivo and the Chamberlain EL2000 Telephone Entry System.

This integration was initiated when the companies realized that property managers with large numbers of locations wanted a way to manage building and gated property access. If a property manager has a large numbers of properties and non-connected systems, staff can end up spending a lot of time on entering data twice and correcting information errors (again, twice if there are two related but separate systems).

Utilizing an XML application programming interface, this integration consists of a software-only add-on module -- Chamberlain's Versa XS -- that transforms a telephone entry system into a Web-programmable appliance. As noted above, users increasingly seek systems that offer compliance with industry standards, open interfaces, and network-friendly, IP-based solutions that leverage existing resources in a simple manner to their best advantage.

This add-on software module fits these many needs, retrieving account information from the access control management system and providing it directly to the Chamberlain Versa XS software -- all without any manual intervention or additional hardware investments. Once the add-on is installed, the security management system is regularly polled for up-to-date resident telephone numbers. Using the XML API, each resident's record is retrieved and the system extracts pertinent items such as the name to display on the panel outside of the unit along with their number and dial code, thus ensuring the facility is much easier to manage and significantly more secure.

The integration of the two systems' data eliminates the need for administrators to enter the same information twice, thereby reducing data entry errors, improving overall system performance, increasing security, and cutting labor costs.

The XML-API Integration Advantages
What are the services that a company can provide through XML-API integration? In broad terms, they can be described as:

  • Synchronizing user identity data with other applications and databases (as in the integration showcased above)
  • Controlling behavior of access control equipment and connected physical devices (remotely unlatching doors or gates, for example)
  • Receiving real-world event notifications detected through connected sensors (such as temperature gauges)
  • Forwarding of alarms, security violations, and business rule triggers

The enhanced capabilities offered through XML-API integration allow an access control solution to do much more than solve the physical security needs of a client installation. New applications can be created that are tailored right down to each specific customer requirement. Applications can be as simple and powerful as turning on the lobby lights after the first person has swiped in for the day, to assigning an access card to an employee immediately after the HR enrollment process (and cancelling it at anytime). The days of security systems operating in isolation are over, and I think the dawn of an XML-API integration era is now in full swing.