Video and Access Control Integration

March 25, 2009
Why your access and surveillance systems are not on speaking terms

Sometimes it’s easy to get really frustrated with our industry. We have known for many years that the integration of access control systems and video systems produces real benefits. Yet, somehow we have managed to continue to build integrated systems the same way we did 15 years ago — one interface at a time.

Why is our industry so far behind when it comes to integration? You disagree? Well, let’s do some comparisons. If you buy a printer this weekend — any of the hundreds of printer models at your local store — do you have to worry about it being compatible with your existing laptop? Assuming your laptop is reasonably contemporary, the answer is “no worries” (That assumes you are not running Vista, but I digress…). If you buy any Wi-Fi device, it connects with all wireless networks. Digital point-and-shoot cameras connect reliably over a USB connection, and your new Blu-ray player connects to your HD television over an HDMI connection no matter whose brand you bought.

In the security industry, we are not so fortunate. Want your video system to talk to your access control system? We live in a world where each access control system has to be “hand-crafted” in order to interface to a video system from a different manufacturer. While that has a certain old world charm about it, what it really means is wasted time and money.

Why the Integration is Important

In spite of the often high costs of making the connections, there is real value in an integrated system. We all know that video systems serve two purposes; surveillance and evaluation. Surveillance allows an operator to continuously monitor the activity in a site. This virtual roving guard serves a real purpose by allowing tours to be made more quickly and surreptitiously than a human on two feet ever could. The downside is that while multiple cameras can be displayed at once in front of the operator, it is still up to that human to select what he is going to watch. The result is that 99 percent of the site’s activity gets missed while we are focusing on the 1 percent. That’s useful, to be sure, and until someone invents a “bad people” detector, it is likely to be very necessary in many environments.

Evaluation, on the other hand, focuses on the monitoring and investigation of events. Those events come from a variety of sensors including video analytics, access control and intrusion systems. In fact, almost all of our other security systems are event-based.

Access control systems in particular generate alarms such as invalid badges, door forced and door held events. Those events need to be investigated, but the task of doing so with a standalone surveillance system is painful. Receive an alarm on one system, and your operator has to move to another complete system to investigate. This surveillance system has a different user interface and so he/she has to “switch gears.” Then, which camera do you call up to view the scene? An experienced operator will know, but that “experience” cost you a lot in terms of training.

And then there is the issue of capturing the event. Was your surveillance system recording the video of that door when the event occurred? Was the frame rate and resolution sufficient or does the operator have to bump it up for an event? Without the systems talking to each other, odds are good that events will be lost and response times will be slow.

The Situation

If you want to connect video and access in today’s world of security systems integration, where do you begin? Here are some possibilities:

• Add video integration to your access control system: If you contact your access control manufacturer and they tell you an interface is available for the video system you have selected, you may have beaten the odds. You will need to verify that the interface supports the particular software/firmware revision level of the chosen video system. Also, take a hard look at the functions provided by the interface to be sure it handles your needs. Almost all will allow the playback of recorded video associated with an alarm event. Look carefully, however, for the simultaneous display of live video and the ability to assign multiple cameras to an event. Synchronized playback from multiple views can often result in a much better situational awareness.

Suppose no interface is available from your access provider. One option available is to request that an interface be written. Understand, this is not an inexpensive way to go, as you will be quoted a charge to develop it as well as the normal license fee. From the vendor’s point of view, these interfaces are not a good deal, since they already sold you the access system and they are focusing their development efforts on new customers. Still, it may be a viable option worth pursuing. Once again, there will be a great deal of variation in the functionality provided, so be sure there is a clear written specification up front — you are commissioning a software development project.

Finally, be sure to think through and agree on a strategy for support. Who will be responsible for updating this interface when the next major software release of the access or video system comes along? The likely answer is you.

• Replace your access system with one that includes video functionality: Another option worthy of consideration is the replacement of your existing access system with one that supports the chosen video system out of the box. Obviously, this is something to consider only if the access system is ready for an upgrade, but it is important to step back and look at the big picture. Often, the cost of upgrading an existing system simply does not make sense. If your field panels are more than 5 years old, or your software is not the latest version, the investments required to add video to an old system likely are a bad deal.

A variant of buying a new access system with CCTV support is to choose an access control system that has the video recording and management functionality built-in. There are both positives and negatives to this approach. On the up side, the integration is guaranteed to work without the risks of special software development. Since the system is a preferred solution for your vendor, it is often true that the level of integration is deeper and the event-driven functionality is richer. On the downside, be careful that the combined system does not combine two marginal products to produce a less-than-stellar integrated one. (Just like a foldout couch, sometimes a device with two functions does not do either very well). Finally, recognize that this type of system is fully proprietary and as such, there are often risks in terms of the total cost of ownership.

• Purchase a Situational Awareness system: A third possibility is to retain your existing access and video systems, and add a new system over the top of both of them. This approach adds a good deal of functionality in terms of event handling. It often provides the ability to combine many systems beyond access and video, such as intercom, mass notification, alarms and other sensors. Most importantly, it enforces that the response to events will follow the procedures that you require.

If your environment has a significant amount of event response, and you are concerned about providing uniform and timely situational response, this approach may not only provide a solution for those concerns but an access/video solution as well. On the other hand, adding this type of “supervisory” system to all of the other systems you have clearly adds to total complexity.

Why Doesn’t it Just Plug In?

None of the above solutions sound like simple tasks, do they? Wouldn’t it be nice if your video system just plugged into your access system with no special software needed? Everyone — including the manufacturers — think so. With so many examples in our personal life where a product just plugs together and works, how hard could it be? So, why hasn’t it happened?

For much of my career in the security business, people have been talking about open architecture. Often the implication (and in some cases openly stated) was that the manufacturers did not want to provide open products since they “make more money with proprietary.” While it might seem that way, the reality is that making open products is a lot of work. Making a simple interface, documenting it well, and then supporting it is tough, but necessary.

Making plug-and-play products — products that just start talking to each other without special software — goes a level beyond tough engineering. Here, the problem is writing and agreeing on an industry standard for both products to use. No one company gets to do that unilaterally — it takes an industry committee, chaired by well-meaning, hard-working volunteers whose employers let them spend countless hours in meetings to make it happen.

With so many new features to add to their products, where does the time come from to sit in industry meetings? Some manufacturers see the importance and invest their valuable time in standards efforts; others realize that saying no to committee meetings means being able to say yes to other things. When the pressure for just one more feature in the next release gets high enough, the standards efforts are often forgotten.

What Can We Do?

In all the years I served as the head of engineering and marketing for major manufacturers, I never once had a customer ask if we served on or supported any standards committees. Not once.

There are many standards organizations in the industry today trying to make progress. The Security Industry Association (SIA), in particular, has been very active in the development and promotion of real industry standards. The Open Security Exchange (OSE) has teamed with ASIS Intl., to champion convergence, while the Physical Security Interoperability Alliance (PSIA) and Open Network Video Interface Forum (ONVIF) were both recently formed to further the standardization of networked security products.

All of these efforts, however, will wither on the vine unless the market participates in the process. Ultimately, the industry is driven by the needs of the end-users. If they participate in standards organizations, and request participation of their vendors and consultants, it will happen. These groups need the participation of end-users because only they know exactly how these systems get used and how they need to work to make them really effective. With end-user help and interest, we can move the industry forward towards what is already technically possible. Without that interest, do not expect truly open solutions between access and video.

Rich Anderson is the president of Phare Consulting, a firm providing technology and growth strategies for the security industry. A 25-year veteran of high tech electronics, Mr. Anderson previously served as the VP of Marketing for GE Security and the VP of Engineering for CASI-RUSCO. He can be reached at [email protected].