The Road to Reconciliation: Integrated Security Systems Are Supposed to Function like a Happy Family. the Truth Is That Many of These Families Are Dysfunctional. (System Integration)

Article excerpt

After being bombarded by hype about better video quality, storage space, and retrieval ability a large Houston-based firm decided to finally go digital in mid-2001. The company added cameras to its main complex, replaced VCRs with much more expensive digital video recorders, and set up a storage network to archive footage. One of the benefits of the system was that it promised ready integration with various other manufacturers' access control systems.

With that in mind, and with a capital expenditure authorized after 9-11, the company made a huge investment in a seemingly compatible access control system. A system integration company was called in to marry the two systems. But the integrator instead found what looked like irreconcilable differences between the products. The optimal solution would have been to tear out the video system and buy one manufactured by the access control vendor. But that would have broken the budget and led to embarrassment for the security director. The security integrator is now desperately trying to make the two systems more compatible.

As this example shows, even in an era when virtually every new video, intrusion detection, and access control system is touted as being integratable, the reality is that the security industry is still far from achieving truly seamless integration. The dozens of manufacturers' representatives, system integrators, consultants, and end users interviewed for this story almost to a person described an environment in which customers wishing to integrate new systems with their currently installed base find the task difficult, if not impossible.

Pieces and promises. Is the industry really integrating its components or merely interfacing them? Despite marketing assertions to the contrary, the latter is still the norm, say experts. For example, lots of companies claim that their access control systems can be integrated with human resources databases, says Ed McMurrer of Pinkerton Systems Integration of Denver. Customers buy the system but when they try to integrate that database down the road, they find that "it's an unbelievable task of programming and writing scripts," he says. The shocked customers may then just scrap the entire integration project.

Many users who consider their systems integrated only have them interfaced. The difference is important because integrated systems capture data once and share it across the whole enterprise, which means that additions and changes made at any point are immediately available throughout the system. Interfacing involves different systems that interoperate but work off of separate databases; in other words, they pass the data back and forth.

True integration makes the system easier to operate and more cost efficient. But unless all the pieces are made by the same company, that level of system integration remains security's elusive holy grail. "It's hard to get true integration between product lines," says McMurrer, in part due to the lack of open protocols.

So-called "middleware" attempts to bridge this gap by providing a common graphic user interface (GUI) for different systems. For example, Ortega InfoSystems produces Windows-based software with an open architecture that allows centralized management of disparate systems.

How soon open protocols will become more prevalent, enabling truer integration between product lines, remains to be seen. "No one is telling manufacturers that it's in their best interest to have open protocols," says Brad Wilson, CPP, president of RFI Communications & Security Systems, a San Jose, California-based systems integrator and member of the SecurityNet partnership of North American security integrators. Wilson laments the lack of integration standards.

But Ray Dean, CPP, president of the system integration firm PEI Systems, Inc., Long Island City, New York, another member of SecurityNet, says that consolidation in the industry is helping to advance the use of open protocols. …