IP Access on the Way

Using IP networks for access control is just around the corner as new generation products and technology becomes available

Imagine an access control system that runs on a common IT server, uses the corporate network for all communications, is completely cabled with common Cat 5 network cable right down to the door, and installs as simply as plugging in your toaster. Well, we may not be there yet, but we are clearly headed in that direction.

You only have to look at the trends toward IP-based cameras and video systems to see the wave of the future. As each trade show passes, more companies bring out video products that use the network for cabling, power and management. The reasons are clear: dramatically lower wiring cost, better reliability, increased flexibility and full use of the infrastructure the company has already paid for. In the access control world, however, things are not quite so clear. Even the most state-of-the-art systems today use more conventional wiring than they do network cabling. In fact, some would argue that increased use of corporate networks marks one of the biggest turning points, and possibly disruptions, the access control industry has ever seen.

Network Connections Are Old News
The move to using the corporate network as the backbone of the access control system has been around now for 10 years or more. "Over 90 percent of our field panels get installed with network connections," said Dennis Smith, director of Integrated Services for SFI Electronics in Charlotte, NC. But so far, the network has only been used to connect the field panel to the host computer and the workstations.

The connection between the field panel and the door hardware is another story. Today, you have a choice between using standards from the 1970s such as Wiegand and installing a manufacturer's proprietary solution. If you go Wiegand, you will find yourself pulling up to a dozen conductors' worth of expensive shielded wire to each door. Going with the proprietary solution saves wiring cost initially but often locks you into a cabling scheme that makes upgrades hard in the future.

Why wasn't this fixed years ago? Getting all manufacturers to agree on a new standard is not an easy task. What is different this time is that the IT standards are coming to us. Ethernet, with its Cat 5 wiring, has become the universal connection for sending data between computer devices. Moreover, as everyone knows, IT departments are becoming more involved in access system purchases.

"One of my customers recently tried to upgrade their existing access system that uses Microsoft SQL Sever as a database, and was told ?Absolutely no' by the IT department; any new system must be Oracle based. Often the security department has no responsibility for the server hardware or software," said Zach Hamm, president of Security Management Consulting in Raleigh, NC. "The proprietary stranglehold that all of the manufacturers have had is going to have to go away because IT will force the standards."

Follow the Money
IP-based video systems are exploding in popularity for many reasons, but a key one is cost. Since the IT department has already paid for the network, installation costs are dramatically reduced. In addition, ongoing costs drop because of the standardization of network cabling installation.

Today, networks use Cat 5 cable, which has been standardized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. This international body has standardized the type of cable, the color code, the connectors, and the installation tools. More important, the sheer volume of Ethernet installations has given rise to the development of inexpensive diagnostic tools and that allow the cable plant to be completely checked out in a way that conventional wiring never could. All of this makes for dramatically lower installation and maintenance costs. "You have low-voltage people who are already under contract on a buildout to put in all the network infrastructure. If security can define their wire pulls in a way that makes it feasible for this same contractor to pull everything at once, it has got to give you a super low cost and a consistency in the way it gets done," said Ed Chandler, chairman of Security By Design, Martinez, CA.

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