Standards matter for everyone in the security continuum

March 30, 2012
Standards efforts may be infantile but are absolutely necessary for the physical security industry

The more I cover the standards part of our industry (which is really more in an infantile specification development stage), the more I realize that standards has miles to go before it sleeps. No one has won; we're really still just in the education stage of advocating standards in this industry. In fact both organizations (PSIA and ONVIF) are actually still in the process of just recruiting members to get the process going and develop new interoperability specifications. Ask around enough to manufacturers and analysts, and you will find that both groups have been fraught with some challenges, but that's to be expected. There's not a magical standards producing wand you can wave to make standards happen. It involves lots of conference calls, plug fests and hashing out of approaches – and that's just the start.

But here's why this effort matters. I was having a chat with an overseas integrator this week who was here at ISC West in hopes of finding a single handheld IP video monitor that his techs could use on the ladders and plug directly into all the cameras they install to be able to configure the units. There are, admittedly, proprietary units from some of the major manufacturers (Axis has one, which is great if you're doing an all-Axis install), but I doubt he was going to find one that could accommodate almost all of the major IP camera manufacturers. He couldn't find one because really such a product can only exist once you have most manufacturers using common specifications. A handheld unit that would work for both PSIA and ONVIF is still a dream, but with efforts from both groups it could eventually be a reality.

Likewise, I moderated a group of Physical Security Interoperability Alliance (PSIA) partners Thursday morning that were discussing the efforts inside this group. The panel included Mercury, ObjectVideo, UTC, Inovonics and Cisco, and as a panel we went in depth into the process that these CTOs used for implementing PSIA specifications, but I think the most insightful comment came from Cisco STS' Deon Chatterton (who is an end user). Deon's point was that end users can be ultimate drivers of these specification development processes, because a single global customer can motivate a number of manufacturers to start playing together at a standards level. He calls it the "fiduciary responsibility" of end users to seek out products that will be interoperable today and in the future. If a global-level end user is going to make the investment, they need to know that their investment won't be an investment in a proprietary system or in a one-off integration. They need to know that the technology they buy will work with whatever they may choose in the future.

Deon's other point about the value of standards for the end user was that neither the most technically savvy security customers (and Cisco's physical security department is certainly one of them) nor the most savvy integrators have the resources to do global level integrations between the multitude of products today, and end users also don't have the money to rip out products continually just to buy the latest solutions offering the newest one-off integrations. The return on investment for standards development means that end users can buy with more confidence, which in turn means they may be more willing to make security technology investments, and that in turn means more dollars for those of you who are in the systems integration and product manufacturing business.

Another point that came out of the discussion was what the ROI was for integrators. Faced with challenging security products, those of you who are integrators know that if you land a $200,000 project but it costs you $200,000 in labor time programming custom interfaces, then you're not making a cent, and you also may be risking your reputation on piecemeal integrations of otherwise non-interoperable products. If integrators can eventually count on standards-type interoperability between products, it means you can confidently sell complicated projects with the assurance that the end solution will work ... and that you won't lose your shirt.

As to the benefit for manufacturers, I'd say that it always is a market benefit to assuredly say that you can work with more partners. That means you aren't excluded from a job because a customer wants Company A in the spec when you only work with products from Company B. If your systems are talking to all of these solutions, moving data seamlessly, you stand to gain more business.

Drinking the standards Kool Aid, I think is one of the best things our industry can do. And whether you drink the grape or the cherry flavored Kool Aid (or even if you drink from the cups of both PSIA and ONVIF), it really doesn't matter. The fact is that specifications/standards development efforts are a sign that our industry is starting to mature beyond being a technology Wild West. Eventually every industry moves away from being a fragmented proprietary industry by adopting real standards or de facto specifications and it's wonderful to see this change happen today.