Caution: IP Ahead

Feb. 2, 2010

Using the building network to boost the capabilities of a physical security system holds great promise … but maybe you should wait

A recent Security News column extolled the benefits of using your building’s IP network to connect physical security equipment. While the benefits are many, some experts advise waiting.

Card access readers, intelligent boards, alarms, electronic locks, cameras, digital video recorders, and other security devices come in IP versions today. If you own analog equipment with a few years of effective life left, you can buy converters that will enable your security data to travel over the network. The benefits include avoiding the expense of cabling and the ability to access security cameras over the Internet – from your condo at the beach or your campsite in the woods.

Then again, those who adopted IP physical security early may, in some cases, feel buyer’s remorse. “Switching to IP can be a bit like jumping down the rabbit hole,” says Sean Ahrens, a project manager in Schirmer Engineering’s Security Consulting and Design Services Group in Chicago.

A number of problems have arisen, including a lack of standards, bandwidth, the need for redundancy, and reliability. Human problems, such as territorial disputes between physical security directors and IT directors, have cropped up as well. Any one of these problems might be enough to make you think you should give IP physical security some time to get the bugs worked out.

IP’s Technical Woes

 “Traditional analog physical security systems have standards,” Ahrens says. “Analog video, for instance, has a standard image format.”

The analog format, called NTSC (National Television System Committee) was established in 1941 and modified for color in 1953. After years of use, NTSC analog video monitors, cameras, and other surveillance equipment fit each other.

Not so with digital video devices, which run over digital IP networks. Versatile IP will carry virtually any kind of digital signal. But the security cameras at one end of the network, and the switchers and monitors at the other end, have to match up. That can be difficult to do in an emerging technical world with no established standards.

In addition, digital video cameras shoot video in different resolutions. Some resolutions require so much bandwidth (the available volume inside a digital wire or pipe) that they will crowd out other signals – important financial transactions, perhaps.

Or it could work the other way around. Ahrens once evaluated a system that performed well with one IP camera. A second camera, however, slowed video transmissions to a crawl. (One or two cameras, of course, don’t make much of a video surveillance system.)

“The problem turned out to be with the company’s employees, many of whom were listening to Yahoo Internet Radio,” Ahrens says.

Connecting one camera filled the network cables almost to the brim, but data still flowed freely. One more camera, however, caused the data to collide and clog the system.

Human Problems for IP

Bandwidth is a major issue for security and IT directors. IT directors typically own network bandwidth and mete it out carefully, often requiring control over systems that use lots of bandwidth. Territorial disputes over who controls security equipment can cripple a physical security system.

Redundancy is another human issue. When the network shuts down, a security system with no backup becomes vulnerable, as one of Ahrens’ clients discovered. The company had connected its security devices over the company network. One Friday, an announcement went out that the network would shut down for routine maintenance over the weekend.

On Monday, the network was up and running just fine. But, during the shutdown, someone broke in and stole a handful of computers – with confidential company data on the hard drives. The crooks apparently had inside knowledge that, when the network was shut off for maintenance, the security system would also be turned off.

“Computer networks can also be hacked,” Ahrens notes. “If an access control system operates on a computer network, digital criminals can conceivably unlock the doors by hacking into the network.”

Despite the problems, Ahrens doesn’t recommend against IP security. He only recommends waiting. “IP will eventually take over,” he says. “But what those IP security systems will look like isn’t established yet. There will be standards. There will be apple-to-apple comparisons and costs that can be evaluated with confidence.

“My advice: wait. Early adopters are designing and building the infrastructure that will support IP security systems today. Wait for them to finish.”

Wait for them to find, suffer from, and solve the problems.

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