System integration and interoperability are over-used terms in the electronic security solutions market; does the technology offer anything of use, or is it all just sales hype? The Devil’s Advocate spoke with Tim Northwood, General Manager of Inner Range Europe, to seek some clarification.
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The concept of integrated solutions is not new. Indeed, for many years manufacturers have been pushing the term ‘integrated’ onto every possible product or system, as if it in some way confers a great degree of technical ability. If anything, the use of the term has become so diluted that if you asked one hundred people what ‘integrated’ means, in terms of security solutions, you’d probably receive one hundred different answers!
Considering the potential benefits of integrated systems, the solutions still attract minority interest. Why is that?
There are two main reasons. The first is concept of price. People have an ill-conceived perception that an integrated system encompassing more than one discipline is going to cost more. From an installers point of view, they tend to think that it will be too difficult to install an integrated system, too complex and that they won’t have the skills required to do it.
Aren’t concerns about price and complexity partly due to the way manufacturers hype integration as some futuristic option?
Possibly. I do think that some manufacturers try to over-egg the capabilities of their systems. Sales people like to talk up figures; support for billions of users and millions of doors. That could have some impact on installers and end users. They’ll think that they don’t have hundreds of sites and huge network resources so an integrated solution isn’t for them; that’s often far from the truth.
A good integrated system can start with 16 zones of intruder detection and access control for a few doors, maybe some building management to run heating and lighting in a small office environment. Probably the fault lies with the way that people try to oversell what the system does rather than to identify what the user actually requires.
Is it driven by ego?
You do find cases when someone will declare, ‘Our system does X’, and the comeback will be ‘Ours does X times ten’, but they don’t explain why the system has that capability. A system might be able to support millions of doors and billions of users when pushed to its limits, but the reason it can do that is because of the processing power that is built into it. Of course, this means the systems also do simple tasks much quicker, which is to everyone’s benefit.
Integrated systems make use of a diverse range of technologies, some of which have very rigid standards, while others have a number of looser standards and some have no standards at all! Do fragmented standards hold back acceptance of integrated systems?
In the wider market, yes. Whenever you have an intruder alarm element integrated with anything else, you have to comply with regulations for a graded system, and there aren’t many manufacturers who can achieve that. There aren’t really standards for access control and some wooly ones for CCTV and building management. It’s only intruder that has held back the wider market from more general integration.
The intruder standards certainly set up stumbling blocks for integration. There’s a hell of a lot of work that has to be done. Putting products through the test houses is exorbitantly costly, and because the standards are constantly updated, you are forever changing the part of the integrated system that has the lowest commercial value.
Maybe more manufacturers would be inclined to produce integrated systems if they knew there wouldn’t be a lot of changes coming from the standards which necessitate retesting and rejigging of products. To change one small part of the intruder element of an integrated system can have knock-on effects for how the other technologies integrate.
As the market moves towards the European approach, where police response is a ‘no’ in general, will Graded response be required?
Will end users be happy to forgo police response in exchange for the other benefits that integration offers?
I think everyone would like police response but the reality is you can’t guarantee it, so is it worth having? Realistically, in the medium to long term, people aren’t going to get it.
I’m not an installer, but knowing the hoops we have to jump through I’d imagine the intruder element of any system introduces a lot of red tape. Installers we deal with would rather fit an integrated solution which delivers a good profit margin without being bogged down with paperwork.
End users are getting a lot smarter about integration. They understand it at a hardware and software level as opposed to a box of relays talking to another box of relays. Where they often fail to understand integration is on the benefits level, regarding cost-savings. It’s not until they sit down and use the system that they understand that. They understand it immediately on a technical level, and we see more of them actually dictating what system they have.
Because the security market moves forwards as technical resources are developed, it’s not always easy to develop products in line with market demands. Do manufacturers add levels of integration simply because they can?
I’d like to think that most of the credible manufacturers of integrated solutions tend to listen to their customers. From our point of view, the things we have in development are not features that the engineers thought, ‘wouldn’t that be nice’. Maybe at the outset of a new system there’s some element of that, but the current queue of things in our R&D department are all customer-driven.
Does that approach contrast with the industry as a whole?
I think that often you have to look where the manufacturer hails from. A manufacturer from China will have a different perception of what customers in the UK might want.
At the ‘churn it out’ level, manufacturers often go for what is easiest to make. They won’t invest in making a better product as the segment of the market they’re aimed at is ‘bargain basement’.
Looking at the business benefits of integration, is there a danger that these systems might become more oriented towards building management, with security a secondary part of the solution?
Fifteen years down the line, I couldn’t tell you, but from a security point of view they will always encompass intruder detection and access control as a first consideration. Integration to CCTV will always be there, but the systems will be open to more building management protocols. I don’t think it will ever become a building management system. From our point of view we want to pass information on to the building management system to get it to do things, and vice versa.
With a drive towards ‘ease of installation’ and ‘ease of use’, is there a risk that systems might be dumbed down to compensate for a lack of skills?
I don’t think the industry has a wide enough skills base to carry out complex integrations, and that has forced manufacturers to think about different ways in which their systems can be installed and configured.
Things have pretty much followed the route that IT has taken. Most modules which connect to an integrated system’s network will be plug-and-play. One of the benefits of us manufacturing such a system to sell to installers is that they can reduce their installation and commissioning time. Therefore they’ll want to buy a system because they know their installation time is reduced. It’s not dumbing down the system; it’s adding more sophistication to achieve that, but we’re also making it simpler to install.
Hopefully, that also means that the end user gets a better job, and isn’t waiting days or weeks for the system to be commissioned.
Wouldn’t it be better to raise skills levels?
The skills levels required to program and set-up the network will increase dramatically in the next five years, because that is the way that all systems are going. Installing and commissioning an integrated system will require an understanding of software and networks, in advance of what many current systems demand.
At the other end, we’re taking away the process of going around setting DIP switches and putting links on boards. In Europe we see a split in skills levels.
The guys who put the boxes on the walls and wire them up are more like skilled electricians. The wiring is beautiful, there are no bad joints, everything is installed properly. Then the guys who do the commissioning are more the IT-skilled people. It creates a dual role; that’s how it has gone in Europe.
Has the electronic security industry suffered from a lack of credible training and qualifications?
Yes. I think that any industry which fails to train staff will suffer. There are some very good courses run by manufacturers, but there’s not enough of them. There are also commercial pressures on companies who cannot afford to release their engineers for four days to go on a course. The margins are so tight they have to be making money every day from those guys. There are installation companies who will find ways to get their staff properly trained, but they are few and far between.
So whilst installing integrated systems will earn installation companies higher profits, they can’t afford to send the staff for training that will allow them to make more money?
It’s a bit of a vicious circle! I know we’re not here to talk about Inner Range, but you can’t buy our system unless you go on the training course, so the end user knows whoever fits it has been trained, and the circle is broken.
What will happen is that you’ll get a division of the market. Good companies will drop residential and small commercial work and realise that they have to do the training, offer integrated solutions, and earn higher profits. They’ll deliver far higher benefits to the end user, and the end user will be less tempted to look for a cheaper option when the maintenance contract is up for renewal. The onus is on manufacturers to do more.
What about the various bodies and associations?
I don’t think they’re in touch with this level of technology. I don’t see how they can provide training for the breadth of integrated options. It falls to manufacturers … and the installers have to want the training; it has to be a partnership.
Does the industry need a change of attitude? Are people too quick to think the end user always wants the cheapest option?
Sometimes the end user does want that. It’s all down to how systems are sold; it’s all down to perception. The end user wants a bargain, but he won’t admit it if he makes a bad decision. Unfortunately, people will always try to sell – and to buy – based solely on price. I’ve seen it where people will fight on price against an alternative system that simply cannot do what is required, rather than pointing out the superiority of what they’re selling. Training has to cover how to sell systems as well as how to install and commission them, and installers must appreciate the value of what they’re offering!
Is the security industry in general overly fascinated with IP?
I think some people tend to get over-excited by it. They want an ‘IP solution’, but do they really understand what an IP solution is? If it’s a case of the software talking to field controllers over IP, well it has been doing that for years. There’s a direct ethernet connection between the servers and controllers on any integrated system, and there will be a direct ethernet connection to any VMS it’s talking to. That’s how it works.
When you connect out to field modules, depending upon the installation, there might be some problems there with regard to length of cable runs. There are limitations regarding power over ethernet and back-up power. If you want to do that job with Cat6 cable, there are limitations. As a result you have to put in switches, and those switches have to be backed up with power. They’re probably going to be managed switches so you need a top-notch integrator to understand the IT side of the system.
If you link from your system controller out field modules with RS485, one line can reach 1.5 kilometres, and there are products to extend that to 6 or 7 kilometres. Fibre is another option.
We’ve realised that people want to use different communications links between devices, so there are a wide range of data convertors. Consider if you need a wireless link between buildings, using TCP/IP. Most manufacturers supply convertors to change their LAN protocols to TCP/IP, and you can just whizz the data across.
The industry will move towards giving the installer field modules – whether they are for intruder detection, access control or integration – which work across a proprietary network, probably RS485, but they will also have a network connector on board so the customer has a choice of how they run it. This gives flexibility.
Do installers have the knowledge to implement complex TCP/IP solutions over managed switches? A few do.
The main choice seems to either be to opt for a single provider end-to-end integrated solution, or to integrate various elements from more specialised providers. Surely the latter approach is the best?
Yes; if you want a disaster! Carrying out integration in that manner – buying five of six different products and trying to integrate them together – in most cases just won’t work. We spend millions of pounds in understanding the protocols within certain products, and being able to make them talk seamlessly to our systems. The only people who can really do that are manufacturers of integrated systems.
Installers are not going to be able to buy two disparate products and make them communicate properly unless they have an enormous amount of luck; it just doesn’t work like that! There are no common protocols in the integrated security industry. Most manufacturers use their own encryption, they want to protect their source code. Integration only happens when manufacturers talk together and agree on a joint venture, exchange data and allow their products to interoperate.
There is a benefit because you end up with a secure product, but one which talks to the other system elements properly. Certain manufacturers will constantly change their SDK, so when disparate devices are upgraded, they can suddenly stop communicating with the other products. An integrated manufacturer will have addressed these issues before releasing updates.
What about ONVIF and PSIA?
If I could work out what ONVIF was for, I might have some useful comment! People talk about open protocols for the industry, but manufacturers are going to protect their own source code, their own intellectual property. While manufacturers will share data with others on a commercial level, I don’t ever see there being a truly open protocol for the security industry.