Access Test: Modular Access Systems (Part 1)
In recent years, modular access control solutions have enabled an ever wider range of applications to enjoy the benefits of the technology. By adding doors as and when needed, networked solutions have brought advanced control of people and premises to the mainstream market, and claimed ease of installation has seen popularity in the available systems soar. Benchmark looked at some of the options to see whether they deliver what is required. In this first part of the test modular systems from Paxton and Progeny are considered.
For many installers and integrators, access control historically fell into one of two camps. Systems for users with a low number of doors were usually basic with low levels of functionality. Certain functions such as user management and reporting were limited, capacity was often restrictive and scalability was limited by both the number of supported readers and users, and the degree of difficulty in managing credentials.
If a system which did more than open doors was required, the installer or integrator often had to take on a system designed for campus-type applications. These carried a higher price and an increased level of installation complexity.
Today, modular access control solutions have changed that. With the ability to support multiple controllers, the systems can be expanded as and when needs arise. However, whether the system is being installed to support a single door, a site with 10 doors or even one with thousands of doors, the features and functions are the same.
Users can roll out solutions based upon risk and available budget, and they have no need to change the core system as this evolution takes place. Installers and integrators can work with a trusted solution across a wide range of applications.
This test looks at network-connected access control solutions. All options included in the test support between one and four doors, but all are scalable as they are modular in design.
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Paxton Net2 plus starter kit
Paxton offers the Net2 plus starter kit as an entry-level point to its flexible and modular Net2 range. The kit is supplied boxed and includes a single door Net2 plus controller with a 2A power supply mounted in a plastic housing, a KP50 proximity reader with integral keypad, a Net2 desktop reader, request-to-exit button, a copy of the Net2 software CD, a reader connector port module plus ‘demo’ credentials. This latter item consists of one keyfob, one magstripe card and one stripeless card. There is also a network cable included.
As out test called for support for a second door, the kit was supplemented with a P50 proximity reader. This is similar to the reader supplied with the kit, but does not include an integral keypad. As with the kit reader it has both a grey and black cover and a 5 metre lead with an RJ45 termination.
The Net2 plus control unit supports two readers and connects to a PC via a TCP/IP Ethernet network. The control unit also has a RS485 connection. This means it can be connected to other Net2 plus or Net2 classic control units using a dedicated CAT5 cable. A Net2 plus control unit can be LAN connected whilst also running an RS485 daisy chain of other units, removing the need for a TCP/IP-RS485 converter.
The KP50 reader supports both proximity and keypad use. It is supplied with a grey and black bezel and mounting screws. The lead is 5 metres in length and terminated with an RJ45 plug. The lead can be extended to 100 metres. Read range is dependent upon the credential: 50mm for a keyfob and 80mm for a card.
The desktop reader is used to add cards or tags to the system. The only connection required is via USB to the host PC. This means that it can be stored securely and only used when additions need to be made.
Each device includes its own instructions, but the kit overall instruction sheet just refers you to these.
The first task is to install the Net2 software. Unless you have specifically paid for the Net2 Pro version and have received an installation code, you will have to use Net2 Lite. Our test is based upon using Net2 Lite. Installation is simple, and once logged in the interface is clean and intuitive. Before connecting any control units, the software needs to be closed. It also worth checking in the task tray and ensuring the Net2 server service is stopped.
Paxton has always strived to make products as simple to install as possible. For example, the terminals on the Net2 plus controller are all colour coded, thus simplifying installation. The manuals include minimal text, instead relying on images and a series of green ticks and red crosses to signify what you should and shouldn’t do. However, for those who are using Paxton products for the very first time, these could make the installation process longer and more complex than it need be.
There are a number of PDFs within the Net2 software which can be accessed via the Help menu. However, some are a tad scant on information and offer further links to the Paxton website. The interesting thing is that finding the relevant information often takes longer than the actual installation.
The install process is simple, as any user of Paxton products will know, but the first time can be slow. For example, the manual supplied with the control unit only covers applying power. The configuration of the network connection isn’t covered. Whilst we accept that the full documentation can be found on-line, it is annoying that the supplied manuals cover so little. The image-based elements are easy to follow, but don’t allow the system to be properly set up.
There is a configuration tool which comes with the software, and this allows the control unit to be addressed.
Connecting the readers should be simple. One tester, who is experienced with access control but new to Paxton, set about cutting the RJ45 connectors off the reader cables. The rest of the test team were astounded. Paxton supplies reader connectors which simply clip onto the eight-way screw terminals and allow the RJ45 connection to be made. As we started to berate him for making the job longer (as each wire now needed to be striped and connected individually), he fought back by showing us the reader manual. Sure enough, the pictures showed that once the reader is mounted you cut off the plug and strip each wire.
Other connections include relay outputs, request-to-exit button, door contact and tamper switch (the latter is pre-wired if you are using a boxed controller).
With the readers and other devices connected and the unit addressed, it’s time to configure the system. At first our control unit didn’t show up and the Detect feature didn’t find it either. However, using the serial number it was found quickly. Controllers and doors can be renamed and added to door groups if required. Our test used Paxton readers and credentials, so it’s just a case of selecting this option from drop-down menus. If using third party devices, the formats need to changed.
The reader operating mode will depend upon the connected device. For example, the KP50 can be used as token only, token plus PIN, token plus code, PIN only, code only, token or PIN, token of code and token or PIN or code. The reader can also be enabled all of the time or on a scheduled basis.
Other configurations allow for alarms (door forced, door open, failure and tamper), the creation of codes, access rights and integration with intruder alarm systems.
With the hardware configured, the next step is to set time zones and access levels, and once these are done the addition of users can commence. Adding users requires a desktop reader. There are two ways of achieving this set-up. The first is to configure one of the door readers to operate as a desktop reader. Whilst it is configured as such, any new token presented to it will automatically generate a new user wizard which needs to be configured as a network-attached workstation. As this is typically impractical, a USB-connected desktop reader is available.
The Paxton desktop reader requires Microsoft .NET framework 4.5.2 or later to run. The supplied software does install the .NET framework, but not a copy that will run the USB reader. It is therefore essential for the supplied version to be upgraded.
We appreciate that manufacturers are sometimes caught out by Microsoft upgrades. However, the version on the CD was released in 2010, and the required version was released in 2014. Because of the ‘simple’ manual approach, there was no information about which version of software was required. With an appropriate version of the .NET framework installed, everything worked as expected.
Once installed and configured, Net2 works well. Access control is, when all is said and done, a relatively routine performer. With the server offline, the Net2 units operate as normal, and logs are refreshed when a reconnection occurs. The system was reliable and accurate throughout testing, and the process of managing operations was simple and intuitive.
Progeny: Crystal P4.net
Progeny’s Crystal P4.net is a two door, four reader access controller which makes use of network infrastructure. The system can be used as a standalone device, or be scaled to manage more complex applications using the company’s Doors Enterprise software.
Our test equipment also made use of the Progeny Crystal switch plate proximity readers. These fit onto a standard electrical single gang backbox.
The Doors Enterprise software is available in two versions: Standard and Professional. The Standard version is free of charge. An upgrade to the Professional edition includes additional elements such as the use of floor plans, zoned anti-passback and customisable photo ID card design.
There is something ‘old-fashioned’ about the P4.net controller, and that’s an issue that might split installers and integrators. The upside of this is that the installation is reminiscent of access systems that have gone before. It lacks the ease of wiring associated with more modern systems, but the process is familiar even if it’s the first time you’ve used the Crystal system. The downside, however, is that compared with other options the system lacks flexibility and could be out of touch with many users’ expectations.
The controller is supplied with a printed quick-start guide. The full manual must be downloaded and for this the quick guide includes a QR code. This means installers and integrators must scan it with a mobile device with a QR code reader app, and then either read the manual on their phone, or email the link to a PC. It would have been better to just print the URL on the cover of the guide!
The P4.net controller features two boards which support two readers each. There is also an integral PSU and a keypad which is used for programming the units.
The connections for the readers, peripheral devices and locks are all made via screw terminal blocks. The readers require four cores and the connections are clearly marked.
The connections are simple. The only negative we had was the Live terminal on the power input had a misaligned securing tab, which was fiddly but relatively simple to repair. Once powered up, the controller goes through a series of audible tones. To be honest, by the time we’d found the relevant point in the guide they’d finished and we couldn’t remember what they were anyway!
Initial set-up can be carried out via the integral keypad. This uses touch-sensitive keys, and the emphasis should be on the word sensitive. A few times we had to prematurely finish a sequence because the keys had been too sensitive and had registered presses that weren’t intentional.
Once up and running, you can test the system by carrying out a block card addition. To do this you simply enter the user code, followed by the code to discover cards. A number of credentials can now be presented to a reader and will be learned. With the sequence ended, the cards are presented and each should grant access.
Cards are added by number, and the system in standalone mode does not enable the user to associated cards with a user, other than manually recording which card number is issued to which individual. For many users used to smart devices and intelligent systems, this will seem restrictive and archaic.
Most of the configurations that can be made through the integral keypad relate to general system parameters. These include lock release time, relay time, sound volume, etc.. There is also an option to set the IP configurations via the keypad.
With the parameters set it is time to move on to the software side of the installation.
When loading the software, the supplied CD only includes installers, so unless the server is internet connected the process will fail.
The trip down memory lane gets a little tiring when halfway through installation you have to remove the CD, restart the machine, then reinsert the CD for it to progress.
When the process does eventually finish, our first attempt to log in resulted in the server not being found. We checked its properties and found an option to force the address to localhost, and with that enabled the connection was made.
Using the software does allow users to be associated with cards, and the usual settings with regard to access levels and time zones can be made. However, the process is never quite as seamless and smooth as it is with other options.
We also encountered a few runtime errors during the process, and there was never a time that we felt as if we were working with a truly seamless system. It always felt very much like the software and hardware were distinct entities.
Performance-wise, the Crystal P4.net does a job. If an access control system is going to recognise credentials and access permissions, it is going to work. The P4.net works.
The real question for many installers and integrators – and very importantly for end users too – is whether it sits comfortably in today’s market with its ever increasing expectations on smarter performance. While the ‘old fashioned’ feel is recognisable and non-intimidating, when it comes to additional value it does fall behind some of the other systems.
Paxton: Net2 plus starter kit
Paxton’s Net2 plus starter kit pulls together a Net2 plus controller, a reader with proximity technology and integral keypad, a copy of Net2 Lite software, a desktop reader and an RTE button. This delivers the first step towards a scalable modular access control solution.
The positive part of the test is that once configured, the system works well, is reliable and dependable, and the user experience is good. If the installer and integrator is a veteran when it comes to Net2 plus, they might find a cost saving with the kit for some applications. However, we suspect that those selecting the kit will be those who are new to Net2, and that’s the slight problem with this option.
The starter kit could be so much better. Firstly, whilst the manuals are designed to be pictorial and therefore give the impression of simplicity, they omit so much information. If there was one well written manual and up-to-date software, the system would be transformed. In truth, the process of finding the right information takes longer than installing and configuring the system. It is recommended, but with a significant caveat for those new to the Net2 model.
One point to note is that selecting a Best Buy for modular access control systems did cause a number of arguments in the test team. Opinion was split between Lite Blue (tested in part 2) and Paxton’s Net2 plus. In the end we couldn’t decide as both have very valid claims, so both take that honour!
Progeny: Crystal P4.net
The Crystal P4.net is a slightly odd beast. It is a traditional mainstream access control solution for low door counts. It is reminiscent of what was pretty much the established face of access control for that market, but it should be remembered that such systems have by and large been replaced by networked modular options, apart from in the low cost end of the sector.
The Crystal P4.net falls somewhat between two camps. It doesn’t have the flexibility of some of the more advanced systems, but it has been elevated above the very basic low cost access systems which offer little or no scalability.
As a standalone system it makes sense, and has a lot going for it. It’s simple and solid, and gives everything needed for basic door control. However, limitations in functionality and user management may restrict its appeal. With a few advances it would represent an interesting choice.