One of the hottest trends in security technology today is wireless mesh networking. As more and larger entities-like cities and university campuses-move to mesh networks, the price of mesh technology should drop and its popularity continue to grow. It's become more reliable, can communicate over a large geographic area and equates to a low total cost of ownership.
While he prefaced his comments by stating that mesh networking is not for every application, Tom Furlong, operations manager at Guardian Alarm Company, Southfield, Mich., sees places where the mesh typology will nearly pay for itself.
For instance, Guardian monitors a railroad yard that is more than one mile long. Their wireless mesh network of megapixel cameras monitors the track for the entire length of the rail yard, bringing video back to a central station.
"Running fiber from pole to pole that distance would be cost-prohibitive," Furlong said. "In certain applications, mesh is much more cost-effective than a wired infrastructure. You will chew up a lot of time and money putting in a hardwired network."
Defining mesh for integrators
Mesh networks are self-healing, self-forming, fault-tolerant, multi-path communications systems. "Mesh networks have achieved full recognition of the unique characteristics that mesh provides," said Michael Sherman, CEO/president and general manager, AES Corp., Peabody, Mass., manufacturer of the AES-IntelliNet product line.
He said functionality and reliability are the only characteristics that matter. "The private sector has reviewed all the available technologies to use for their critical systems and have selected mesh as their go-to solution," he said. He noted that alarm signal communications require networks to transmit and receive a signal of immense importance in the shortest time possible.
Furlong agreed that the reliability of the signal is one of the key benefits to a mesh network. Another of Guardian's mesh networks is a video monitoring system on a 40-acre retail complex. Anchored by one large store, it has five out-lot buildings and restaurants. They are charged with providing video feeds from every corner of the lot. But what happens if a shopper knocks into a light pole and takes out the camera position?
"One advantage mesh has over fiber is that, if there is a cut in the fiber it is not immediately healable," Furlong said. "If someone hits a pole with a mesh system, it does not affect the whole system. The network finds another way to re-route the signals and the network continues to function."
"You want to look at how many redundant potential ways the communication system can deliver the message. You also look at the fault tolerance of the communication system. A typical mesh network can have hundreds of unique paths to route an alarm signal to the central receiver," Sherman explained. "Could you imagine doing this with phone lines, public cell phone service or any other form of wired or wireless communications?"
Unlike their railroad yard application, the retail installation is part of an integrated solution for the site, said Furlong. The shopping center integrates gate access and physical security and is served by an on-site guard.
"Once you establish a mesh network, we can put a wireless transmitter anywhere within the network and expect it to work," Furlong said.
Some of the security wireless networks deployed by AES cover an area of 30,000 square miles. "This is an asset that has greater functionality above alarm monitoring," Sherman said. His company realized this some time ago and has added metering, vehicle tracking and machine to machine communications to the functionality of its mesh networks. These networks, he added, monitor fire and burglar alarms, track armored trucks and monitor the HVAC of the protected building while reading the utility meters simultaneously.
Furlong said expanding a mesh network is easy. As they put in hardwired nodes, they establish a virtual private network (VPN). "That allows us to go beyond the 'edges' where we currently reside," he said.
Making it happen
"Integrators must know in advance what they are trying to achieve," Sherman said. If it is video then the appropriate video mesh technology is called for. If it is alarm data transmission then only a system designed for the transmission of alarm packet data should be used.
In other communications systems the first sign of a failure is the failure of the communications medium to deliver the critical data. This is unacceptable in any form of security communication networks.
"A system that is ideal for the transmission of one form of data may be a total disaster for another type of data," Sherman continued. "Setting up communication networks of any type should never be done without considerable forethought and planning."
That is why integrators and customers must be honest with themselves and select a mesh network that is optimized for the purpose at hand and not assume all data is the same. "To assume so will only lead to disappointment," Sherman said.
Integrators also should review the connection options for a particular mesh system, looking at ease of connecting security system components to a mesh access point.
Furlong likes the improvements that have been made in mesh networking over the past couple of years. For one thing, they can expand to two-way communications with panels they connect to transceivers.
"At one point, they could only transmit 'singles' to us. We now can send simple commands back over the network," Furlong said. They are able to arm/disarm systems, change codes or adjust and modify zones when the customers require.
"It's not the same as doing it over a phone line," Furlong said. However, given the situations where mesh is typically deployed, the added functionality is appreciated.
Cost is always a factor but should not be the only consideration, the experts agree. The good news here is that prices are coming down. Competitive pressures always cause drops in prices. As newer models are introduced the older versions often are offered at a discounted price. As the market expands, some observers feel prices will drop.
"We haven't seen costs drop yet," Furlong said. However, he said that there are applications where mesh is the only practical solution.
"We are getting more opportunities that would make the mesh network an attractive alternative," Furlong added.
Mesh networking is a go-to signaling communications infrastructure that's getting the attention it deserves by a host of different vertical markets, end-users and systems integrators. The technology continues to provide reliable communications, making it a fit for security and other value-add applications.
Did You Know?
- Mesh network vendors can employ signals built into the network to notify the alarm company that a system is being overloaded or that a network component is not performing to specifications.
- Mesh systems must have in-depth diagnostics to continually check the operation of the network to ensure its reliability and operation.
Sell or Up Sell
In many areas and applications, a mesh network is the only practical solution. If topography or distance make installing a wired backbone impossible, an integrator should look to a mesh radio application.
In the case of the railroad yard, any other application would have been cost-prohibitive.
In the case of a mall, or a campus, where other security services are offered, a mesh network makes a nice up-sell or add-on to a customer who wants to protect both the physical property and the people who are visiting the campus.
Sign Up For Secured Cities
Slated for May 10 through 11 in Atlanta and sponsored by Securityinfowatch.com, SD&I and STE magazines, Secured Cities is the only education and networking conference exclusively focused on municipal video surveillance. Secured Cities 2011 is specifically designed for the needs of city managers, law enforcement leaders and systems integrators who are operating, developing or implementing municipal video systems used for security, law enforcement and even traffic monitoring. Mesh networking will be part of the program's discussion from those who have successfully implemented this and other technologies in their cities. Visit www.securedcities.com to register and make hotel reservations.
Curt Harler is a freelance writer and regular contributor to SD&I magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.