The debate about open architecture
 
The debate about open architecture

Feb 1, 1999 12:00 PM
TINA D'AVERSA-WILLIAMS

Until recently, open architecture systems in the security industry have been misunderstood, mostly because there is no universal definition. Open architecture does not mean simply the sharing of information so that equipment from different manufacturers can work together. That definition still limits the number of compatible products.

Webster's dictionary defines "open" as, "affording unobstructed entrance and exit; accessible to all," and "architecture" as, "a style or method of construction."

According to a survey of security directors by Access Control & Security Systems Integration, 55 percent are interested in integrating their security systems, integrating their security with other building management systems and integrating multiple sites. Furthermore, security managers are concerned with protecting their investment. They do not want to be tied to one vendor or one technology. Flexibility, ability to customize and ease-of-use are needed.

Open architecture technologies enable integration across systems, but are not sufficient for a complete solution. The flexibility to communicate with other systems is necessary. However, open protocols do not allow total communication. In fact, using only open or standard protocols could limit a system's ability to integrate with a variety of systems and technologies on the market today.

Whether or not an open architecture standard is necessary for integration is questionable.

True open architecture exists when industry-standard communication architecture allows hardware to be interchangeable under common communication protocols.

The PC industry is an example of an "open" revolution, although standards arose out of the dominance of a few hardware and software developers.

Most security professionals agree that an industry-wide universal protocol is far from acceptance, and some believe it is not needed. However, the security industry can learn from the PC industry, as well as other, more mature industries.

The PC industry was born around an off-the-shelf hardware bus (the ISA, or industry standard architecture) and Microsoft DOS and subsequently Windows. Around this well-known and accepted standard, companies could build any variety of hardware and software products. The economics of this model versus the previous closed/proprietary model used by many computer companies caused explosive industry growth and increased competition that still drives huge leaps in the price-to-performance ratio.

The PC industry has created standardization from the dominance of a few companies. Windows and NT are considered a standard because of the wide acceptance of Microsoft.

When compared to the PC revolution, the security industry's current definition of open is more accurately a "closed-flexible" approach, because the flexibility is designed into thesystem, and therefore limited by system designers.

Speculation and opinions abound as to the adoption of true open architecture and a standard in the security industry. Will there ever be an open-communication protocol? Will there ever be a standard for software protocols or hardware development?

In the next few issues we will seek to answer the questions by highlighting technical offerings of some of the developers and supporters of open architecture systems.

The future Momentum is shifting in the right direction - whether toward a standard of true open systems or simply customizable systems using commonly accepted communication criteria. Many products are Microsoft Back Office-compatible and support minimally Microsoft NT and TCP/IP protocols - a move in the right direction. Security systems designers and managers are working more closely with network and IT managers. Proprietary systems are no longer accepted because IT managers are involved in the decision-making and are not willing to share their networks with inflexible systems.

To answer IT managers, many manufacturers have opened their proprietary software protocols to third-party developers of flexible software systems as an interim solution to the open architecture challenge.

A large installed base can establish a product line as standard. For example, the Wiegand format became standard due to its popularity. DOS, Intel and Windows became standard because they became dominant in their respective markets.

On the hardware side, Mercury Security is one of the few manufacturers developing open technology components. Some system manufacturers will make their hardware available to third-party software developers. This model works for applications in which a manufacturer of a general purpose system is not interested in developing software for specialty applications. Most hardware manufacturers hesitate to give up control and allow components to become commodities, as in the PC industry.

Several security companies are leading the open-communication effort.

Software developers include AMT, Lenel Systems International, Security Applications Inc. and Orion Automation.

Hardware manufacturers include Mercury Security, Seimens Building Technologies - Landis Division and Hirsch Electronics. The technical approaches to the "open" challenge offered by these companies differ in degree of "openness."

AMT AMT, according to president Gary Larson, has developed its software technology in a fashion similar to building with Lego blocks.

"Using the Lego-like approach, integrator/installers, or even customers, can arrange the final product or add to it," says Larson. "To make this work, they need to be able to buy features (software components) off the shelf, and not rely on a vendor to anticipate their needs. The key is the use of a standard. We were looking for the equivalent of the ISA bus for software on which to build, out of components, a complete, ready-to-run access control system. The integrator or customer could use the components as provided or in any arrangement needed.

"We found exactly what we were looking for. Somewhat to our surprise, we learned that Microsoft has been evolving an open standard for software design since 1992. This software bus has changed names over the years, and today it comprises Microsoft's OLE, Component Object Model (COM), ActiveX and automation technologies.

"Using the software bus, it is possible to create end-user applications for thousands of components available from thousands of vendors around the world. It is possible, for example, to create a picture in Paint Shop Pro or a similar paint program and "drag and drop" it into a word processing application, even if they come from different vendors and were never designed to work together.

"The ramifications for the security industry are huge. If everyone in the access control industry followed these standards, the customer could choose the best fit for their organization in each category, buying the access control system from one vendor, the badging system from another, the time-and-attendance system from another and the hardware from yet another.

"In AMT's case, customers can choose from the thousands of available components to build data entry forms, maps, whatever they like, and extend the system with multimedia tools, agents, voice recognition and speech capabilities, just by buying them off-the-shelf. Or they can use features found in existing applications. For example, one person recently added e-mail capabilities to our Brix product, using Microsoft Outlook. By leveraging existing off-the-shelf software, adding e-mail messaging took him just 20 minutes.

"In a closed system, such a feature could be provided only by the manufacturer, if they were willing to provide it at all. And then it could take weeks or even months and probably come at a high cost. We use Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications as our built-in programming language, which lets the integrator take our system wherever he or she needs to go. We feel this is ultimately where the industry is headed, limited only by the willingness of vendors to move to standards. We're convinced that enough of them are afraid of being land-locked on proprietary, inflexible islands to force everyone to move this way. We feel many vendors are underestimating end-users, who are increasingly being influenced by their IT departments. The trend for IT departments is to standardize on open technologies for enterprise systems.

"To be truly open, a system must be designed from the ground up, from components which are then exposed to the integrator. This is why our industry so desperately needed a "software bus" that ensures we are all compatible not only with each other but with the rest of the computer industry.

"We often hear members of the access control industry refer to the move toward open systems as a fad or a bad idea, and it reminds us of many years ago when IBM and the other computer industry giants repeatedly stated that the PC was just a fad. They woke up, but only when IBM reported a loss of several billion dollars in one year."

Security Applications Inc. (SAI) According to David Swartz, SAI president, the company's philosophy for security management is an open system that combines the open and unbiased integration of security hardware from multiple manufacturers with open computer standards. Swartz says: "Integrating hardware from multiple manufacturers allows you to install a new system that incorporates the technology that best upgrades an existing systems without replacing field hardware.

"SAI offers multi-user, multi-tasking security management software based on the UNIX operating system and open architecture software that integrates access control, alarm monitoring, CCTV and audio intercom hardware from multiple manufacturers.

"SAI offers open architecture applications on both UNIX and Windows NT platforms. Its standard products include software for access control, alarm monitoring, CCTV control, and audio intercom control. Its advanced optional applications include: Web-based access privilege management, Web-based visitor management, contractor control, asset management, vehicle tracking, time and attendance, and video badging. The new Web-based applications are available on UNIX or Windows NT Web servers and are accessible from any standard Web browser over a corporate intranet or the Internet.

"SAI does not manufacture security hardware products. SAI's single focus on advanced security management software position it as an ally, not a competitor, to security hardware manufacturers. SAI's mission is to integrate security hardware from multiple manufacturers for enterprise-wide security management."

A list of the companies and technologies supported by SAI are available on their web site at www.sai.com.

Orion Automation Orion offers third-party integration software using Windows NT features, including user/operator security restrictions, encrypted network transmissions and a Unicode character-set for easy foreign language translation. The architecture of the Oasis product allows Orion to write interface modules to talk to and control most any electronic device or system that can communicate data to external devices or systems.

According to Orion president Greg Danaha, "Our method of 'openness' is to provide a means for various subsystems, such as CCTV, access control, alarm, intercom, and building systems to work together in a way that allows a common control point (or points) for all devices on all systems, and linking of events between the subsystems.

"The goal is to create a unified security system made up of various subsystems. For example, if an employee forgets his access card, he or she can press a call button on an intercom station. A map or floor plan of the facility is called up on a workstation and an icon representing the station flashes, telling the operator where the call has come from. A CCTV camera is called up automatically, so an operator can view the employee at the door. The operator clicks on the intercom icon to acknowledge the call and talk to the employee. The operator can then call up a badge image stored by the access control system to verify the identity of the employee. When all checks out, the operator can release the door by clicking on the door icon (next to the intercom icon). All this can be done on one computer using the Oasis program. The operator is able to do the job much more efficiently and handle emergency situations with less stress.

"Currently, the way to create this integrated system is by using software that acts as a system manager, coordinating the interaction between the various subsystems. Most subsystems have some means of communicating with other systems, via serial or network communications. However, some systems, specifically many access control systems, don't have a readily useable means of communicating with other systems. This is partly due to the proprietary nature of most access control systems, and partly due to the fact that many systems are still using architectures designed many years ago.

"To integrate with most access control systems, we emulate their workstations. In other words, the access control system "thinks" that Oasis is just another one of its workstations. In a truly open environment, there would be a standardized method of connecting to those systems to perform on-line functions such as opening doors, calling cameras and passing alarms.

"Hopefully, manufacturers will agree on a method using ActiveX or some other standardized method to make it easy to exchange event-type information. This is our idea of an open system - one that has a means to easily exchange event and control information."

Seven benefits of open architecture

1. Ease of installation.

2. Ease of integration and communication on networks.

3. Lower cost of integration.

4. Lower cost of upgrades.

5. Streamlined network and systems management.

6. More competitive systems.

7. More choices for end-users.

Coming in March: Industry Outlook explores technical specifications in open systems architecture, and more.

Offering analysis and commentary on the security industry at large, our goal is to keep readers informed of the market growth and forward move-ment within the industry. The column is written by Tina D'Aversa-Williams, publisher of Access Control & Security Systems Integration, whose background includes work in market research and analysis.

 
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