Upgrading access solutions

October 2005 Access Control & Identity Management

Access control systems have, as a general rule, been developed as proprietary systems. System manufacturers are mainly interested in developing a system they believe is better than other systems on the market. They are not interested in building a system compatible with their competitors, for a number of good reasons. One reason is that it would be R&D time and expense that would bring little benefit to them. In fact it could even be detrimental to the manufacturer if it allowed a competitor to poach clients.

When to upgrade

The replacement and upgrade scenarios are many and varied. Some examples of what can be done are given here. The hardware components that might need replacing are head end and head end software, reader controllers and readers,

The most common upgrade done, and probably the simplest, is a software upgrade. The reason for upgrading would usually be to have more 'user friendly' software with greater functionality - including greater networking ability. Most system manufacturers are continually upgrading their software and having the latest version of software installed is sometimes as simple as loading a new file onto the head end PC. Sometimes the PC might need upgrading because the new software needs the faster or more powerful processor to run the upgraded software.

Despite the fact that most systems have been developed using the same software, commonly DOS, QNX or the latest Windows platforms - there is very little compatibility between the head end software of different manufacturers. There have been a few replacement or 'bolt-on' head ends developed particularly when some manufacturers were slow to develop 'Windows' front-end software for their DOS systems.

However, the sales generated for a product like this were not a good return on R&D investment here in South Africa. Your current supplier remains your best source of a head end software upgrade. If your current supplier cannot provide a software upgrade it means that no R&D is being done on that product. If this is the case, hold tight because other factors will no doubt come into play. These factors will probably include a reader controller upgrade.

Reader controllers are really the heart of an access control system, not so much the head end. The reason for changing reader controllers would be much more fundamental than a head end software upgrade. It is probably because of a need to change the whole system. The reasons often include the replacement of an old system that is no longer supported, or has become very expensive to support, has become redundant or does not have the functionality required. It is also likely to be a fairly major exercise not to mention a significant expense.

Because there can be significant sales of equipment in this area it has been more worthwhile for manufacturers to spend the R&D dollars to develop reader controllers that will talk to competitors readers.

In fact the retrofit market in the USA is so large that it is worth companies doing the R&D necessary to design interfaces so that they can upgrade older systems with their own equipment. It only takes the sale of a few large systems to replace a competitor's system to justify the R&D effort required to develop an interface.

This has brought some competition into play where previously only the proprietary system supplier's equipment could be used. The use of the Weigand format as a de facto industry standard has also helped in this area. The upgrade of a system to gain greater functionality is more likely to require controller upgrades than anything else. So if you can keep the field hardware, which is the expensive part of any installation because that is where the labour costs are greatest, you will be in a much better financial position.

The first stop when considering a system hardware upgrade of course would be your current supplier. It is quite likely that since you purchased your system the manufacturer has been busy doing R&D to keep up with technological developments.

Practicalities of upgrade

The first thing to check is how seamless the upgrade is. What equipment can be kept? What equipment has to be replaced? As mentioned above it is hoped your current equipment supplier has been keeping up his R&D. If he has, a firmware upgrade for your door controllers may be all that is necessary to give the increased functionality desired. This involves plugging in a new firmware chip with the upgraded software 'burnt in' into the controller. If this does not give the desired result then a change of reader controllers is required.

It is not unusual to have a situation where an upgrade to a system is required and there is a large investment in credentials. Replacing credentials can be a significant expense for large installations. On top of the cost of the card you also have to add the administrative cost of the changeover. This can easily be as much again when you consider the logistics of programming, issuing the new, and exchanging the old credentials.

If a site was to have 5000 credentials and we allow the average price of say $3,00 per card then cost times 5000 comes to $15 000. When it comes to an upgrade a considerable amount of equipment can be bought for this amount of money. If there is no good reason to change the credential, why not put the money to better use buying more equipment to expand the system or introduce the latest technology?

The good news is that credentials do not wear out or become redundant the way system hardware can. The type of credential might become less fashionable but the functionality will be the same. So the goal now is to find a reader controller that will talk to your existing readers. This will depend on the brand, model and format of the reader. The universal Weigand format has made connection to the readers of several different manufacturers possible. Add to this a few manufacturers who have developed reader controllers to take the place of competitor's controllers by emulating their reader protocols and you have quite an interesting cocktail of mix 'n match possibilities.

What about changing your credential and keeping your existing reader controllers? This upgrade happens when a different credential is needed and it may be considered because one site needs to be compatible with another, for instance, a branch now needs to be compatible with head office. It could be a change in security policy, with the introduction of photo IDs requiring a card in place of a Mil/DKS key. Another situation could be where a swipe reader was being replaced with a proximity reader. I also think in the not too distant future we will see the need to have readers that will be compatible with a card that has a 'smart chip' in it.

Whatever the reason for the change, again the first stop should be your current system supplier. They ought to be able to provide an interface between your current reader controllers and the desired reader technology. If you are changing to a new technology it is likely that you will be looking to add readers that are available with Weigand outputs. If this is the case it should not be too difficult to interface them to your existing controllers unless they use some very old technology.

Roger Pearce, CPP, has been involved in access control since 1975 and has had experience in all aspects of system design, and project management. He was a director of DKS and now works as a security consultant specialising in access control and electronic security systems. He can be contacted on rpearce@accsoft.com.au




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