Network monitoring up to the challenge

The concept of networking continues to evolve at every turn, especially within the realm of integrated systems. With everything moving to the network or browser-based, the space is changing up and down the channel and especially for those offering central station monitoring services.

As data moves virtual, the security of the network and communications remain paramount. Signals have to get through in a reliable and timely fashion—and the information that’s sent must be intact and secured against threats from viruses or hackers. Redundancy, backup servers and power, firewalls, password protection and updated software are critical to network monitoring.

“These systems that ride on the network—it’s all becoming one bigger system,” said Cliff Dice, president and CEO of DICE Corp., Bay City, Mich. “We’re in transition but eventually everything will go from hardwired to wireless networks,” he said.

DICE Corp., which provides automation, accounting, service, alarm dispatch and other turnkey central monitoring station software solutions to some of the industry’s most well-known and successful alarm companies and central stations, also offers disaster recovery services at its 25,000-square-foot central monitoring center in Bay City. DICE is also an Application Service Provider (ASP), offering remote hosting of all its software products, including asset tracking. This service allows central station owners to run their business without a costly overhead infrastructure and IT staff. As an ASP, DICE manages and distributes software-based services and solutions to clients across a wide area network (WAN) or Virtual Private Network (VPN) from the central data center.

“Every single client central station is a satellite office,” said Dice. “All the data from our clients come to us every night and we back up two million accounts. Alarms span more than signaling today. Even alarm technicians carry wireless Web-enabled products and applications and those have to be backed up. The networks are all talking and that includes the wireless.”

Having IT personnel on staff has become the rule rather than the exception. SentryNet, based in Pensacola, Fla., offers IP monitoring and has two UL FM Disaster Ready Hot Redundant Central Monitoring Stations.

“We have Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA®) IT personnel on staff to work on the network and manage the Internet for us,” said Michael Joseph, vice president of Operations for SentryNet. “We have IT managers, technicians and staff in both our central stations,” he added. CCNA technicians are versed on both networking as well as mitigating security threats.
SentryNet also offers the Web-based NetConnect 3.0, a secure and encrypted site, to its dealer customers, which allows them to access their customer data via any Internet browser. SentryNet plans to roll out new features to NetConnect which will allow alarm dealer’s customers access to some of their account data, with safeguards, passwords and other levels of security in place.

Balancing act for security

“With security on the network the challenge is maintaining a balance between allowing access and monitoring the security of the network,” Joseph continued. “How much do we open the firewalls for new technology and how much does that expose us?’”

Achieving and maintaining the balance between openness and security gets trickier every day. Morgan Hertel, director of Central Station Operations for Mace CSSS in Anaheim, Calif., said systems integrators are counting on their monitoring facilities to provide secure communications.

“I can tell you from my experience that most dealers are ill-equipped to understand most of the issues with regards to safeguarding networks and look to us and other vendors for help and guidance,” Hertel said. “Gone are the days when a central station can do without a very competent IT staff.”

Hertel said Mace CSSS in Anaheim has an IT support group that works with dealers, with the majority of calls coming in related to networking and IP video installations.

“In terms of keeping us and our customer’s data safe we go out of our way requiring strong passwords and encrypted connections and we spend a lot of time and money making sure things like firewalls and systems are patched and updated regularly. “It’s quite a task really,” Hertel said. With regards to backup, Hertel said budget is a consideration but as an example the Mace central station has three providers for Internet access. “This might be overkill but I sleep better at night,” Hertel continued. “We do things like running firewalls with automatic failover and we also have installed extensive networking monitoring and security systems that not only report to us but our automation vendors 24 hours a day.”

The systems integrator is definitely counting on the central monitoring center for assistance in providing a secure network.

“It’s extremely important to us that the entire network path is secure,” said Michael A. Ash, president of Garden State Fire & Security in Aberdeen, N.J. “As an owner of and a purchaser of product we assume that the security of the network and the product is built-in.” Ash said he currently doesn’t allow his customers to access the database at the central station or its facility. The company is considering deploying the capability for customers, through software, to request a service call, pay a bill or see their account information through a Web portal the company would supply. “We have not yet deployed this technology due to security concerns,” Ash added.

Today, third party monitoring providers and central stations are helping integrators and dealers increase the security of their customer’s networks and also their own, with encryption, data protection, firewalls, redundancy and more.

As these companies continue to operate and make the move to more Web-based solutions and software as a service, new and interesting challenges will arise. In fact, these days it takes an IT department to tackle everything that may come up in the central monitoring station and the network. And, there will be new challenges, including not only network security but interfacing new devices and moving to converged solutions.

Sidebar: April showers—bring monitoring flowers!

Don’t miss our totally revamped Central Station and Web-based Monitoring Guide in the upcoming April issue of SD&I. The publication is included with the regular issue as a value-add for anyone needing to know more about contract or central monitoring centers. Back this year is the comprehensive listing of companies and services and look for stories on Web-based monitoring and the future of the industry. Third party central stations interested in the free listing, please contact Natalia Kosk, assistant editor, at (800) 547-7377, ext. 2705,