The Case for IP Access Control

Feb. 6, 2014
IP-based systems that simplify connectivity and save you money are not just limited to the world of video

When I joined the security industry in the 1990s, most electronic access control systems were based on analog technology from the previous decades. By the end of the 90s, the industry introduced its first real foray into IP-based access control with a controller attached to an Ethernet connection. Yet today, more than 15 years later, traditional analog access control system are still the industry norm with only a small percentage of installations using IP connectivity to the main controller.

If the security industry still hasn’t found a compelling reason to embrace end-to-end IP-based access control by now, what new offerings on the market could possibly turn that situation around? To answer the somewhat tepid adoption rate, it helps to understand the development arc of IP-based access control.

Yesterday’s Hybrid vs. Today’s IP

Centralized controllers for analog access control systems have been around since the late 1990s. They employ an RJ 45 connection that is “networked” to communicate over an existing IP backbone; however, like a video encoder connecting an analog camera to the network, this is really still a hybrid solution. The door contact sensors and card readers communicate to the head end via analog cable that runs to the door. And they still need a local power source.

Here is where the newest IP-based access control technology differs from its predecessor. A pure IP-based access control system — including door sensors and card/badge readers — connect directly to the network, eliminating the expensive cable runs that the old analog devices required to connect to the centralized control panels.

Moving Control to the Edge

Moving control to the edge — meaning the access control devices themselves and intelligence within — offers a number of advantages. As with IP video, there are significant cost savings to be realized when you use a network drop rather than pull additional cable to the communications closets. This configuration has the potential to eliminate centralized controllers in already-overcrowded communications closets, where multiple systems are already vying for limited real estate. If it’s a Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) environment, you can save even more by reducing the need for traditional power outlets.

Since IP-based networks run through switches and routers, rather than point to point, it is easier to place IP-based access control devices where they are needed. In some environments, where wiring may be difficult or not aesthetically pleasing, wireless connectivity provides enormous flexibility; but supplying power may still be a bit challenging.

Proprietary vs. Open

Previous access control systems were often proprietary in nature, which made it difficult to integrate their operation with other vendors’ security systems, such as video surveillance, intrusion detection, etc. In contrast, the new IP-based access control systems entering the marketplace are based on open standards, making it easier to create a cohesive security strategy managed under one umbrella system. If we look at the current landscape of access control systems it is pretty easy to discern the value of adopting an open standards platform.

A traditional access control system: The typical components include software, the controller, card/badge readers and credentials. Some parts may be proprietary and some may be open. For instance, many card/badge readers feature an API (Application Programming Interface), which is a standard set of instructions that enable different manufacturers’ products to connect and communicate with each other.

A good example of this in the world of consumer electronics is your cable box. It doesn’t matter who manufactured it. You expect to be able to plug it into any brand of TV through a standard connection and receive content on your screen.

While it’s true that people have long had some freedom in selecting their types and brands of card/badge readers and biometric devices, there has been much less openness when it comes to software and controllers. This led to integrators and installers buying software and controllers from the same manufacturer, which limited their selection of other supported components such as card/badge readers, credentials and biometric devices.

While you could make an argument for buying the whole system from one manufacturer to ensure it all works seamlessly together, this strategy creates an environment with limited choice and flexibility. It locks the end-user into one platform for many years to come, preventing them from taking advantage of new technologies since those won’t be supported by their current proprietary platform.

A global access control user told me that his top priority was to select a system with an open platform so they would have choice and flexibility as their business needs changed. Like many other users, he had already experienced situations where products or companies ceased to exist and was forced to deal with the painful reality of having to completely replace the legacy system.

An open access control system: In a truly open, best-of-breed environment, you can choose the various IP-based access control components (software, controllers, card/badge readers, and credentials) from different manufacturers as long as those components are designed to operate on an open standards platform. These components would feature an API for easy connectivity, as well as integration with each other and other security systems on the network.

Restricted vs. Flexible

Another benefit of an open IP-based access control solution is flexibility. Many older proprietary access control systems have 8-16 door controllers similar to 8-16 channel DVRs that restrict video users in the analog world. Other traditional access control solutions start with two doors and expand in increments of two even if you only need to add a single door.

On the other hand, a main benefit of any IP-based technology is that users have the freedom to add one device at a time. Scalability doesn’t end there. In a truly open, IP-based environment, the technology can be applied to just a few doors in a single building or multiple doors across an enterprise, across a nation or even across the globe. Furthermore, an open platform means it is now possible for the controller from one manufacturer to work with the software from another provider to create more complex/advanced solutions.

What impact will this new technology have on security dealers and integrators? Well for one thing, integrators and installers will now be able to train their staff on fewer controllers. They can install the same IP-based access control hardware whether it’s for a small business needing just one or two doors or a major commercial customer with many buildings and doors. Over time, the install team will need less training and retraining.

In addition to simplifying employee training, the IP-based access control system can be managed, troubleshot and supported remotely over the network, just like the company’s other network-based security systems. For the end-customer, it means they can standardize on the same access control hardware for every installation environment and still customize it through software to the needs of the specific location.

How it Saves you Money

Now here’s the real clincher: an IP-based system is going to reduce your costs. First, by taking advantage of network topology you can eliminate centralized controllers and expensive point-to-point cable runs. This is especially true of new building installations that are usually pre-wired for IP infrastructure.

Second, by taking advantage of PoE you can cut back on the cost of installing local power supplies to the access control hardware. PoE has become commonplace for powering a range of IP-based devices, from IP phones, to shared printers, to network video surveillance cameras. Powering access control over Ethernet will become part of the mix.

Third, by taking advantage of existing IP infrastructure you can add doors to an existing IP-based access control installation without having to pull a new set of wires to the new access control site. Additionally, in places where it would be costly and difficult to introduce network infrastructure, you could use wireless connectivity to install an access control solution without disturbing expensive architectural or historically-significant building features.

Stop the Cabling Madness

Over the past decade, the IP video revolution has proven that IP-based solutions are more flexible, scalable and open than their analog counterparts. Making the move from a proprietary system to an open standards platform allows the consultant, integrator and end-customer to choose the best of breed solutions that actually meet their needs.

Consumers already grasp the inherent benefits of IP-based systems. They use the technology in just about every facet of their lives — from phone service, to email, to cloud storage of data. These consumers are the same people who manage businesses filled with IP-based systems controlling everything from telephony, to corporate-mail, to physical security.

The groundwork for introducing another IP-based system into their operations has already been laid — now it’s your job to show them how they can make the transition.

Scott Dunn is the Director of Business Development for Axis Communications (more info at He has spent nearly 20 years in the access control and video manufacturing industries.

About the Author

Scott Dunn

Scott Dunn is the Director of Business Development for Axis Communications ( He has spent nearly 20 years in the access control and video manufacturing industries.