Access Control: Keep Your Options Open

March 13, 2015
The importance of open architecture in the changing landscape of access control

The phrase “open architecture” is thrown around quite a bit, but it is still somewhat ambiguous. A software operating system could be considered an open architecture; databases are open architecture; when it comes to analog video surveillance, there was an “open” aspect to architecture because manufacturers had to build their products for NTSC or PAL standards. IP video was not quite as open initially; however, today’s manufacturers are pretty consistent with ONVIF and Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP).

Most access control systems today cannot make the same claims. Many control panels on the market will claim to be open, but what that really means is that they are available for integration with a handful of companies. They are not truly open, they do not have a publically published protocol available for anyone to use. Really, when we talk about open, we are talking about non-proprietary solutions.

Reasons for The Shift To Open

One of the most significant trends in the security industry centers on a shift away from closed proprietary systems to open architecture. There are a few key reasons: First, consider the changing needs of a client. An integrator can experience a nightmare situation if their client’s needs outgrow their capabilities or the capabilities of the manufacturers the integrator sells and supports. What will a current client’s system requirements look like a year from now, or five years from now?

I’ve seen end-users start off with a small system of half a dozen readers and cameras and grow to more than 10,000 cameras and 8,000 card readers, as well as satellite remote sites that grew from a few to hundreds. If an integrator fitted that initially small client with a proprietary system, there’s a very good chance they would miss the growth opportunity that came along later.

Integrators need to be able to provide flexible options when a client grows through acquisition or has a need that their current systems do not support. “Flexibility” and “proprietary” are often opposing concepts.

Open architecture enables integrators to better support clients by providing a solution that does not put them in a corner, but rather gives them the ability to scale up through additional hardware integration, bolt-on software modules or open software integration to other third-party products.

Steve Pharis, President of Brunswick, Ga.-based Tutela Inc. — one of Vanderbilt Industries’ integration partners — says he prefers to be totally transparent with his clients about the solutions he sells and installs. Tutela’s solutions rely on open technology so clients have flexibility if they ever need to change, with minimal financial impact.

Ben Boomer, Vice President of Twin City Hardware of Oakdale, Minn. — another of our integration partners — believes that because of the rapidly evolving world of security, having his clients in an open system is hugely beneficial. When something new and exciting comes out, he can be more flexible and is able to accommodate those capabilities with minimal financial or operational impact to his clients.

Also, consider the powerful differences between a closed software application and an open one that can send and receive information to third-party systems, bringing additional value and functionality to both applications. Which will be more valuable to clients? The important distinction is this: Even if such openness is not of value to a client today, it might be in the future. Having an open application provides that option.

The Pitfalls of Proprietary

With access control panels void of a true open protocol, integrators should do the best they can to pick a product line that is widely adapted by leading access control manufacturers, such as Mercury Security. Should the need arise, usng a platform like Mercury Security provides the end-user an opportunity to migrate to a different software platform while maintaining most if not 100 percent of the field-installed hardware. On the other hand, proprietary panels will necessitate the need to perform a costly forklift upgrade and replace most of the installed hardware.

There’s another reason for the shift to open architecture: Decision-makers have changed. Years ago, the end-user involved in security decisions were primarily law enforcement professionals who were more protection-minded. Today, more often than not, an individual from the IT side of the business will be engaged in the decision process. The IT world is accustomed to and expects open architecture. Closed proprietary technology is not only alien to them, it is downright unappealing.

Because of this shift, much in the security world is changing. For instance, in the electronic locking market, manufacturers are making their protocols available to all access control companies for interfacing.

There will always be integrators in the market who begrudgingly hold on to selling closed systems. Perhaps they believe that selling a proprietary system gives them a competitive advantage to maintain the client relationship; however, the bottom line is that you maintain clients by providing exceptional client service and support. If an integrator is highly available and their system is always up and reliably performs the necessary functions, the client will not leave. Locking a client in with a proprietary product is not the key to client retention.

Finding the Right Manufacturer

Selling and supporting open technology is one thing, but finding the right manufacturer to supply it can be a challenge. What are some characteristics of the “right” manufacturer? Integrators understand that there’s a symbiotic relationship between themselves and manufacturers. A manufacturer can have the best product in the world, but if there is no one out there selling, it will also be the best-kept secret in the world.

Consider that most functionality added to a solution is driven by the needs of end-users and shared through integrator partners. If there is not good communication all the way down the line, manufacturers will miss the features and functions they need to adopt to maintain relevance and clients will look elsewhere. Therefore, integrators should seek partners that recognize the value they bring in connecting the needs of the client with the solutions of the manufacturer.

When an integrator is working with an end-user and finds something lacking or a gap in the software capability, the integrator needs to have confidence that they can go to their manufacturer and get changes made to serve the client. Similarly, support is an important attribute. Many integrators do not have a 24/7 technical software support desk, which manufacturers have and make available.

When their clients run into trouble or have a need — at 3 a.m. in many cases — the integrator does not have the resources or staff to properly help. In these cases, it is crucial to work with a manufacturer who can provide back-office services and tech support. When clients call with problems, they are often frantic. Integrators should seek a partner who is highly available and focused on solving problems above all else. Naturally, a lot of companies will talk about how great their support is. Integrators should ask around to see how well each manufacturer really performs.

Lastly, integrators should seek manufacturers that are capable of long-term, loyal relationships. Relationships are not about telling good jokes or giving out tickets to a ballgame —they are based on what happens when things take a turn for the worse. When things go bad, will your manufacturer be there for you and the client? Loyalty is earned when time after time the integrator is challenged to provide a custom solution for their client — sometimes on an emergency basis. They must be confident that they will be able to call their manufacturer, who will back them up, respond and get the issue sorted out.

Mitchell Kane is President of Vanderbilt Industries. To request more info about the company, please visit