Designing for integration
While integration of security systems undoubtedly adds value for end users and increases the benefits available from an investment,it is important that the scope of features and functions does not shift the core functionality of any solution away from security and safety.
The term ‘integration’ has, over the years, changed from being a description for the engineering of common system interfaces, and has instead become an overly-used marketing term. More often than not, systems heralded as ‘integrated’ turn out to be simply connected via relays and switches. The trumpeting of integration promises much, but often delivers little. The word seems to be used more often than it’s ever explained. It can also be confusing, because when some manufacturers promise integration, the reality is that they’ll only deliver on that promise if you intend to integrate one of their products to another of their products!
The industry has been talking about integration for many years, and so you could be forgiven for thinking that the practice is commonplace and well understood. However, more often than not the potential for integration is not followed up, and as a result many additional benefits which the end-user could enjoy do not get delivered. Was this may sound negative, the future is actually very positive as new and emerging technologies make integration an exciting prospect and a reality for a very wide range of applications.
Whether you want to call it integration, interoperability, smart solutions, intelligent buildings, connected systems or the Internet of Things, manufacturers in the security sector are looking to how the emerging technologies can be exploited to add value for customers. For those with a clear and well considered direction, staying at the cutting edge of technology is helping to drive the industry forward.
Sadly, however, there are also many manufacturers both from inside and outside of the security industry who have offered more hot air than pragmatic advice.
If installers and integrators are indiscriminate in who they listen to, it is very easy to become swamped by the noise. It may well be possible to connect the security system to a kettle on the other side of the world, but it would be ridiculous to do so. Security systems can offer additional value with features such as business intelligence, site management, safety, power management, etc..
It is important to realise that an integrated system is not simply security system with an additional device connected, nor is it to security systems of differing technologies with an output on one switching an input on the other. While such arrangements may have been described as integrated in the past, this merely serves to underline how vague and misleading the semantics have become.
Many will point out that, in their opinion, a technical barrier exists in that a common protocol is required for integration is to be successful. The integrated devices need to be able to communicate via a shared language or the situation is doomed to fail, they tell us. This is despite the industry already having a diverse range of products and systems that already easily communicate.
The truth is that the biggest barrier to integration is attitude rather than technology. Security installers and integrators have the required tools available to them; unfortunately there are a number of manufacturers and suppliers in our industry who find an open platform approach too challenging (either technically or commercially) to help drive development.
The right combinations
It is important to realise that integration and an open platform approach does not mean that every product must freely integrate with all other devices. For example, talk of the Internet of Things might point towards a whole world of connected devices, but such an approach isn’t right for installers and integrators.
As already mentioned, there isn’t a lot of point in a video surveillance system or an access control door station communicating with a kettle or, for that matter, a fridge or a washing machine! Just because there are networked or IoT-connected kettles does not mean that security manufacturers must create systems that communicate with them.
However, there are some significant benefits that can be achieved if, for example, a security system could communicate with digital signage. This could be used in conjunction with an ANPR-enabled camera to direct vehicular traffic to allocated parking bays or to appropriate loading areas.
Whilst it would be possible to recognise a member of the management team’s number plate and switch on the kettle to make him his morning cuppa, it’s highly unlikely that an end-user will pay for this! Their attitude will change even integration with signage delivers efficiencies to their day-to-day operations whilst in turn leverage even greater value from their security investment.
Integration can go beyond simply connecting additional but beneficial devices to a core system. If a sensor on a door communicates to a PTZ camera that it has been opened out of hours, the camera could then automatically move to capture a view of the door. However, that interaction would be even more powerful and would effectively generate more meaning if the interaction was combined with additional sources of information.
If the information from the door sensor is combined with the information from an access control system, then a VMS will be able to deliver a greater level of information about the situation to an operator. The message changes from ‘the door is open’ to ‘John Smith has just opened the door’. It could even show a stored image of the authorised person, allowing the operator to verify the validity of the access control transaction.
Integration even allows the operators rolled to be made more efficient. The software itself could compare John Smith’s access control database image with that of John Smith at the door. If it’s a match, access will be granted and the relevant images stored in an audit trail. If there is not a match, the system can secure the door and alert the operator, thus allowing an assessment of the circumstances. In such a setup, the operator is only required to be involved in suspicious access control transactions and can therefore give more attention to other more critical tasks.
It pays to remember that the majority of security devices are primarily sensors in the broadest sense of the word. Cameras, access control readers, video analytics, detection devices, thermal and temperature sensors, audio surveillance equipment and any other item which can provide safety and security information are designed to gather real-time status information about a protected area.
When looked at in isolation, each device in a system is relatively simple. Often it has a single task to carry out, and it will be very good at achieving its goals. That’s the whole principle behind the concept of integration: to provide a wide range of specialist systems and devices which can then enjoy additional features and functions through connections with other specialist objects. However, there will be a requirement for a logical organising entity to decide what to do with the data received from the various integrated units.
Whilst today it is possible to deliver innovative and smart solutions, there is also a need for installers and integrators to remain realistic. The security industry (and indeed many other technology-based sectors) is still some way off being able to create truly intelligent integrated solutions. The reason for this is that networks are metadata structures characterised by immature management protocols. Autonomous and intelligent tasks such as automatic connection to a network is not currently achievable. This means that in any wide area integrated system, the infrastructure must be designed to allow continuous communication.
In all reality, it is unlikely that this situation will change in the very near future. Whilst this does not prevent the creation of integrated systems, it does emphasise the need for robust and resilient design. Security systems must be ‘always on’, and with an integrated solution this may require a high degree of redundancy.
Does this limitation mean that integration is currently something of a pipedream? The answer is no; there will be a need for well-considered design and attention to detail when ensuring continuity can be maintained. The technological landscape is bound to further advance in this direction, because important developments tend to happen when they assist with business processes, and integrated security systems can assist with key business process.
True system integration cannot be viewed as a singular thing. There is no one definition or approach. It must be flexible and bespoke, which gives it something of a fluid nature. However, equally it does not have to encompass all things. End users are not demanding that their security systems connect to every other business device. They just want added value!