Network appliances arrive bearing gifts for security managers

March 2006 Information Security

There is a technological revolution taking place in the design of integrated security systems, and once you understand it you will want to be part of it. A scant five years ago, the more advanced security systems were developed around software running on PCs using the Windows operating system and connected to peripherals using serial communications protocols. Today, that state of affairs is changing.

Processors have become faster and more capable and mass storage and memory have certainly become much less expensive per megabyte; but the biggest contributor to evolution of technology in the security world has been the proliferation of high speed networks and the public Internet. In an industry that has notoriously lacked standards, IP networking has come to the rescue.

The new network appliances

Network-enabled devices, known as network appliances, are systems that perform a particular function and can stand alone or interoperate with other systems using the IP network as their communications medium. The latest crop of digital video recorders, for example, are network appliances: they contain all the equipment and software required to record and, to varying degrees, analyse video, and to make it available to other systems.

The first network appliances on the market required special client software to be loaded onto a PC to serve as a user interface. The latest network appliances, however, include an internal web server, which means that any permitted computer on the network with a web browser such as Microsoft's Internet Explorer or Mozilla's FireFox can use the device.

What this advanced type of network appliance, the web-based network appliance brings to the system owner freedom from installed client software. The requirement for installing client software creates a dependency between the device and a particular computer. Updates to the computer often require updates to the client software; replacement of hard disks requires reloading the client software, and so on. By making the user interface of a system browser-delivered, these dependencies disappear, reducing the associated maintenance headaches.

The convenience and reliability of browser-based network appliances has led to yet another step in the evolution of these devices: solid-state, browser-based network appliances. This latest type of system addresses the fact that moving parts are the primary source of system failure. Depending on the system, large memory arrays that have a lifetime numbered in the tens of years may be able to substitute for moving disks that have a lifetime of a year or two. In systems that produce so much data that it is not practical to go without moving disks, the network is used to move the data to centralised shared disk arrays for storage.

Benefits for security managers

The solid state, browser-based network appliances offer a number of benefits, some of them not immediately obvious. Clearly, the first among them is reliability. Because most security systems have lives that are much longer than other systems, this is especially important. A solid-state network appliance can have an MTBF (mean time between failures) in excess of 10 years because without moving parts, there is not much to fail.

Manager, meet your IT counterpart

An adjustment that must be made between security managers and IT managers comes because of the shared nature of the networks that these new devices use. Security managers may be suspicious about the security of the data riding on the network. At the same time, IT managers are often concerned with the volume of data that security applications produce.

To address the data security issue, a few of the latest network appliances employ data encryption and authentication techniques in a way that is transparent to the system manager.

How one treats the matter of data volume depends on the particulars of the systems involved. Access control, alarm monitoring, and even IP-based intercom systems use relatively little network bandwidth and can be ignored in most cases. The issues for most IT managers are video systems, especially those that employ IP video cameras.

Here is how security managers can take advantages of the benefits that network appliances have to offer:

Look for IP-network attached devices when purchasing access control, video, and other security systems;

Assure that they can be used from your web browser without having to install special software;

Obtain the cooperation of your IT or network manager in advance (they can be a good source of help throughout the process).

For more information contact Phil Mailes, S2 Security Corporation, 0944 1483 852181, [email protected], or visit

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