The best DJ in biometrics

Access & Identity Management Handbook 2021 Editor's Choice

Gary Chalmers is one of the founders and the current CEO of iPulse Systems, a South African company that has been supplying biometric products and services to the local and international markets since 2007. Today Gary has taken iPulse beyond biometrics to be one of the first companies in South Africa (or the first, depending on who you ask), to move from product and solution sales in biometrics, identity and access control, and focus primarily on services.

Biometrics was far from Gary’s mind in the late 1980s when he was a DJ and stage actor, even winning an award as Top DJ in 1986. TME Sound, Gary’s company, owned one of the largest mobile discos in South Africa back then, called Party Animals, and hosted hundreds of events for private and corporate clients.

Gary Chalmers.

A military call-up ended the disco era for Gary, where he discovered his affinity for technology and teaching. He founded Training Connection in 1995 and built it into a success before it was bought by the Connection Group in 1997, just before it listed on the JSE. Gary was one of the founding directors of the Connection Group, building a massive brand that included not only his own Training Connection, but Incredible Connection and Business Connection as well.

Gary then did a stint as the sales and marketing director: Europe and Africa, for CompTIA (based in Chicago), before returning to South Africa. He bought Training Connection back from the Connection Group in 1999 with the Mustek Group backing him. It was subsequently renamed Torque IT and is still one of the largest IT training companies in the country.

Gary left Torque in 2007 and joined the Richmark Group as the CEO of iWise and GWT. In 2010 he bought those companies and combined them into iPulse Systems. iPulse has won various awards in its 10-year history as an innovative company. For example, it won awards in the Department of Science and Technology’s Top 100 Awards in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2018; and iPulse was a finalist in Accenture’s Innovation Awards in 2015. More recently, the company has been recognised by Microsoft for its innovation in the services arena and has just won the Innocentrix Top Innovation Award for medium sized businesses in South Africa for 2019/2020.

Moving with the times

When talking to Gary, it becomes clear that he regards the traditional process of sourcing, buying, selling, installing and maintaining access control as antiquated. With the available online technology and new ways of doing business these days, iPulse has broken with tradition in almost every aspect of the normal security business model.

Chalmers believes the distribution/reseller/installer model we are used to is broken, as the actual manufacturers end up with the least amount of profit, but are stuck with the serious problems. More importantly, the manufacturer is only called in at the last minute when the client is angry and the installer/distributor has given up – the manufacturer is the last in line when it comes to passing the buck, yet has almost no contact with the end customer in this model.

Despite having an office in the USA and exporting to 27 countries, iPulse today operates on a service model, commonly known as Access Control-as-a-Service (ACaaS). This was a major change for the company and a couple of years of sleepless nights for Gary, but the results have proven the wisdom in this change.

Gary explains that buying an iPulse solution today is not a matter of buying a biometric reader/s, for example, although the company still designs and manufactures its own products locally. Today iPulse sells access or identity as a service. This means there is no need to outlay a large sum of money to get products delivered and installed, no additional costs for support and repairs, simply a monthly charge according to the number of readers and users the customer has. This also means the model can work for both a global corporate or a small business.

It’s all about the cloud

The recognition iPulse has won from Microsoft is due to this business model, which is based on Azure, Microsoft’s cloud service. As noted, iPulse sells its access control as a service, which means a single payment per month. All the authorised identities as well as all the entries and exits are logged in the cloud (and backed up), as well as held on the readers.

Once someone is enrolled at a location, their data is synchronised with all the readers onsite as well as in the cloud. The readers are synced frequently to prevent an instance of someone not being able to enter or exit a particular door.

iPulse uses a Linux kernel (operating system) on its readers, which means the readers can be updated easily and new applications can be installed remotely via the Internet. And since each reader stores the authorised identities for that location (or multiple locations for organisations with branches) and are equipped with batteries, should Eskom start another series of blackouts, the readers will continue working until the power returns. Even if the Internet goes down, the readers will continue operating, although new enrolments will not be synchronised until connectivity is restored.

The service model is based on levels, with the higher levels including all maintenance and repairs, although customers that pay a monthly fee that includes the readers will simply have their readers replaced if something goes wrong. Those that prefer to buy the readers receive a replacement for up to five years if something happens.

Again, because the system is cloud based, iPulse generally knows about a problem before the customer as it has dashboards running in its office that continually ensure all customers’ systems are working. Gary notes that since moving to a cloud model, callouts to customer sites are a rarity as over 95% of maintenance and support issues can be solved remotely. This compared to the traditional models of locally installed software, where the average support ticket required over 50% of all tickets to have someone visit the customer site.

That is, of course, assuming the client’s Internet connection is running. As far as Gary is concerned, when it comes to maintenance, Internet connectivity is the customer’s concern, everything else is iPulse’s problem.

This business model is a paradigm shift as it allows iPulse to retain control over its systems, without having to rely on third parties for distribution, installation and maintenance. The company still has a few key, strategic partners that do targeted industry sales, support and maintenance, in conjunction with iPulse, which handles all first-line support as part of the deal.

The result of this model is that while overall revenue may be down because there are less people selling the brand, profits are up as the manufacturer actually manages to make a profit. It also means that there is opportunity for additional revenue streams, specifically in the area of business intelligence (BI).

Making use of your data

Due to the flexible nature of the iPulse readers (the Linux kernel) and the data collected for customers in the cloud (the data belongs to each customer and is not shared), iPulse is now able to offer additional services based on the same model. These can include visitor management, workforce management, time and attendance, and more.

Looking ahead, Gary sees an opportunity to make even more use of this data to aid in the efficient running of the business, moving into areas such as building and power management.

An example Gary provides includes a company that employs three people per branch to manage visitors. The system dashboard clearly showed that busy times were Monday morning, between 09:00 and 12:00, and Thursday afternoon, between 13:00 and 17:00. Using this information, the company was able to reduce its employees at other times from three to one, and only has additional people on site during the peak periods. In this company’s case, the savings on personnel were four times the monthly cost of the system – a 400% return on investment (ROI).

Another example includes the case of a large multinational fast-food chain outlet that picked up fraud in their restaurants using artificial intelligence (AI). In this case, the AI engine picked up employees who always clocked within a few seconds of others, both in and out, which was an unusual statistic. Investigation showed that the manager had enrolled both the employees’ fingerprints onto one individual’s record, allowing ‘two’ people to clock in and get paid, with only one at work. The net savings were over five times the annual cost of the product, again providing an ROI of 500%.

It’s about IT

When asked what advice he would give to young people entering the security industry, Gary answers, “What young people?” He says the physical security industry is really an industry of old men and he believes youngsters should focus on information technology skills as this is really where the future of the industry lies. It’s hard to find an IT system integrator that does not include physical security solutions in its portfolio these days. This is clear proof of how the industry is moving.

So, for people wanting to get into the industry, understanding technology, where it’s going and how to use and manage it will be critical in future. For now, RS-485 and Wiegand may still be a thing, but like analogue surveillance cameras, the market will keep shrinking as new technology and IT integrators make things faster, simpler and cheaper.

For Gary Chalmers, technology in its various forms has taken him from a disco king to an educator through to a technology innovator and business disruptor. Advancing technology has also resulted in a new profitable cloud-based service model for iPulse, as well as the ability to provide clients with a return on investment (ROI) that is definable and measurable in hard currency.


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