There is a technological revolution taking place in the design of integrated security systems. 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 computer on the network with a web browser can use the device.
What this advanced type of network appliance, the web-based network appliance, brings to the system owner is 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 (ram disks or flash disks) 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.
Shared disk arrays often have redundant storage, as is the case with RAID disks, and centralised backup for archival storage. Although these storage arrays are considerably more expensive than the individual disks that they replace, their cost is spread across a large number of systems and uses, and their reliability and the convenience of centralised backup more than make up for that cost.
Multiple 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 (for example your desktop PC), 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.
A less obvious benefit associated with browser-based systems is the speed with which they are learned by new users. Because so many of us are now familiar with the Internet and websites, browser usage is often second nature. Think about a browser-based network appliance like a website for running your security system. What was the last website that you had to be specially trained to use?
In the face of the cost savings associated with reduced maintenance and training, you might think that network appliance-based products would be more expensive than their PC-based predecessors. But that is generally not the case. Manufacturers also benefit from the advantages of network appliances. After all, systems that are more reliable and easier to use for the end user are also less expensive for the manufacturer to support. The result is that product prices are no higher - and sometimes lower - when network appliance architecture is employed.
Here is how security managers can take advantages of the benefits that network appliances have to offer:
1. Look for IP-network attached devices when purchasing access control, video, and other security systems.
2. Assure that they can be used from your web browser without having to install special software.
3. Obtain the cooperation of your IT or network manager in advance (they can be a good source of help throughout the process).
Over the coming years you will see more and more systems made available as network appliances. For those who know what to look for, these valuable solutions are available today.