Integrating access control tools is the primary key to a seamless system

In today's world of technology, the most efficient visitor management and access control systems contain an element of integration between electronic access control tools, such as RFID or bar codes (referred to subsequently as SmartKey), and a visitor management system. Integration prevents the facility from having to enter information in two different places. Integration also prevents the facility from having to remove information from two places in the case of a deletion. It is this last step that is the most important because failure to deactivate a SmartKey means that it will continue to function long after a resident or employee has moved, traded a vehicle, or left the company. Since visitor management should already contain information on the resident or employee's name, address, phone numbers, and automobiles, adding a field to contain the access control SmartKey number is not significant. The challenge lies in what goes on under the surface once that SmartKey number has been entered into the database.

Implementing access control hardware

Implementation of access control hardware involves the proper design and installation of several components. The SmartKey reader itself may consist of a bar code or RFID reader. These are installed and mounted to allow the reader to read the SmartKey on a specific vehicle as the vehicle enters the property. The reader is in turn wired to an electronic control panel usually in an adjacent structure such as the guard house or visitor's desk for that entry. And finally, the control panel must be connected to the software that manages the data for all of the SmartKeys. The installation of the reader and the control panel requires the installation of on site conduit, wiring, (sometimes) concrete pads for the readers, and software installation. The on site work requires an entirely different skill set from the installation of the access control software. The software is generally installed on a remote computer and connected to the control panel via a high speed internet connection. The software usually communicates to the control panels via TCPIP in a modern era installation or via dial up phone lines in an older installation.

In an integrated environment, one in which the access control software is tied to the visitor management software, the access control software is generally installed on the same server or computer as the visitor management software. And, once the system is initialized the user only interfaces with the visitor management software to activate access control SmartKeys. The access control software is ‘pushed' to the background to the point that the user is not aware that it exists.

The benefits of integrated hardware

Some access control hardware providers have developed SDKs, or Software Development Kits, that allow for ‘tight' integration between the access control software and the visitor management software. Through these integrations, the data between the two systems is shared on a ‘real time' basis. This allows for instant activation of bar codes, RFID, and other means of access control. It also means that the reporting in the visitor management software will be immediate. This is especially beneficial if the visitor management provides a view of the access control activity that is taking place. For example, as an RFID device is read, a monitor could display the credentials of the user including a photo.

A non-integrated system could mean a breach of security

A less tightly integrated system simply allows for data-sharing rather than file sharing. In a data- sharing environment each system will usually be set up to create a file of export data that is to be imported by the other system. On a scheduled interval, the systems reaches out to the file repository, grabs the most recent file and imports it into their respective databases. The inherent scheduling of export/import implies that there will be some sort of delay between data reaching the systems. In the case of a facility that wants to view information as it takes place, even 15-20 seconds of delay can allow a breach of security.

Ensuring a dual-system works together

During installation the company managing the server must integrate the two software programs. The databases do not necessarily mirror each other. For example the access control software and database is specific to the control panel manufacturer. The software contains user profiles such as time of day and day of week parameters that tell the system how to behave when a particular SmartKey is read. The parameters may include information on which entries a SmartKey may be used at. Most manufacturers allow the system to manage multiple profiles. One profile may be for resident's who have access to all entries 24/7. Another profile may contain privileges for contractors to enter only through one gate Monday-Friday from 8-5. The user's names are also stored in the database. The visitor management software contains the user's names, and auto details. When properly implemented the system administrator can activate a new SmartKey in the visitor management software by entering all of the pertinent information, selecting the desired profile, and saving the entry. This information is then pushed into the access control software over the internet (TCPIP) which in turn pushes the data to the proper readers. The two systems are hence integrated.

Managing relationships is the key to trouble-shooting

It is necessary for the installer of visitor management software to have a good working relationship with the installer of the SmartKey readers. Each party must clearly understand the other's role in the process. This will allow for a smooth integration and minimize support issues in the future. When there is a need for support it is generally because a particular SmartKey is malfunctioning. To diagnose this trouble the technician must look in several places to determine the source of the problem. The steps involved generally include 1) check to see if the SmartKey number is in the visitor management database, 2) check to see if the SmartKey number is in the access control software database, 3) check to see if the access control database pushed the data out to the control panel, 4) check to see if the failure is occurring at all readers or at just certain ones. Because it is possible for a control panel to ‘go offline', there are occasions where a newly activated SmartKey number did not get pushed into the proper control panels. Offline means that the connection between the software and the panel has been lost. This troubleshooting generally takes place with the visitor management software company. Once it has been determined that the SmartKey number did propagate to all of the proper places, the on site technician must be involved. The testing begins a new series of steps. 1) is the device properly installed in the vehicle, 2) are the control panels online, still connected via TCPIP 3) are there any wiring problems between the reader and the control panel. This is generally not the case or other SmartKeys would probably fail as well.

An integrated system eliminates problems for the end-user

Access control integration issues are the source of most support calls in an integrated environment. And, without some advanced knowledge of the system networking and the ability to look behind the scenes, it is difficult for the average user to determine the source of a problem. In order to trouble shoot, the support entity must be able to not only see the user data, but they must also have access to the database for both the visitor management software and the access control software. And, they must have remote access to the onsite control panel for rapid problem resolution. For this reason, integration simplifies the troubleshooting for the end-user as they generally only need to call one company. If the two were not integrated it will be equally easy to determine who to call, but the benefits of integration out weigh the challenges it poses.

Van Page is the founder and president of CapSure, creator of visitor management software for residential communities, corporations and distribution channels. 

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