Convergence Goes to College

Students and faculty members at Louisiana’s Grambling State University may feel more visible, as well as more secure, than those on a typical campus. The forethought of the university’s information technology (IT) staff led to an Internet-protocol-based (IP) campus-wide security system, and now, there are few unsecured areas. The university has installed more than 300 IP cameras that transmit images to the Internet-based server, and the school intends to expand the deployment to 500 by the end of 2009. Video software allows the school to access video from each camera through the Internet and to integrate video and security, access control and retail business functions. More schools may begin looking like Grambling State soon.

A few years ago, Grambling State had some stand-alone analog camera systems, none of which were easily upgradeable or integrated. In fact, as the technology became obsolete, the old analog systems just stopped functioning.

The school wanted an IP system with a robust enterprise-­level server where mass storage could reside. Now all access control and video events are stored on the server at the IT building. The system, Genetec’s Omnicast IP-based surveillance, was provided by security integrator Camera Watch, Jackson, Miss. Since the system is wireless, it uses one backbone and gives the college the flexibility to grow.

For students, it means carrying a single ID card with a variety of uses. For example, the card can be used for access control at multiple locations and also for payment at campus businesses. All camera footage is available on the IP platform, as is the access control data. That means that if, for example, there is a suspicious use of a card, security can automatically pull up a video image of the user, which can be compared against photos stored for that individual in the database. The ID card also can be used as a debit card at retail locations, such as the campus bookstore. The student can prepay a balance into an account, which is accessed each time the student scans the card, said Jim Walker, Camera Watch’s vice president of sales.

Throughout the country, college security systems vary greatly. But nearly every college in the United States is looking at some level of convergence, bringing the security network in on the IT platform and sharing tasks, responsibilities and software among those who once traveled in very different circles.

Integrators—often electrical contractors—can bring vendors and college facility managers together and help sort through rapidly changing technology and security needs.

Convergence puts the decision-making into the hands of both the security and IT departments, said Dennis Charlebois, director of product management and marketing, physical security, for Cisco, a network systems supplier. Today’s security systems are more IP-centric, he said.

“Historically, the network is the pipe to move data. Now it can be used as a platform for applications to interoperate,” Charlebois said.

This convergence alleviates some of the past management burdens that had to be handled when security and IT operated on multiple platforms. When physical security was in its own world, it needed separate event management, scheduling and policy management just like IT, Charlebois said. Having both of these systems managed by one platform makes the process less cumbersome and even less expensive.

Devices, such as access cards or cameras, can deliver information into or pull data off the same school network.

“If we standardize the way we talk to the network, it gets even easier,” Charlebois said.

Currently, each of the multiple camera manufacturers has its own individual drivers.

“The cost of owning these systems and sustaining them is high,” Charlebois said.

The goal of reducing that burden is motivating Cisco to develop a network that would allow devices to speak the same language and share one common platform. At the same time, the network needs be flexible, so universities can gradually phase it in, using their old analog equipment and card readers and working in new equipment as it becomes necessary.

“You don’t want to rip and replace everything,” Charlebois said. “We still have a long way to go before technology will all be interoperable.”

A new open media application programming interface (API) will go a long way to harmonizing devices in the meantime. With the swipe of an access card, lights could turn on and cameras could swing in the appropriate direction. All of these functions would take place through the API or simple ASCII exchanges.

Included in this convergence are the communication and notification systems that allow the university to communicate with all students at once, sending text messages, e-mails or phone calls in the event of an emergency, such as a shooting. Video takes a great deal of bandwidth, so Cisco begins by looking at the network a university already has in place, assessing whether it is serving the functions needed, then looking at the existing devices to see to what extent they are IP-enabled.

Cisco also interprets what the risk scenarios are for that specific university and how they interoperate with local police and administrators. Sometimes, convergence is more difficult. IT departments may not be the ones selecting cameras, while security departments might not understand the networks.

“It’s the IT folks who are capable of providing that value,” Charlebois said. “We’re at a crossroads with technology, and both departments need to be at the same table. They’re the ones on the front line.”

With convergence, Charlebois said, installation will be less painful. Configuration tools will make it possible for end-users to step in and configure the system as they need it when the installer is finished.

“In that way, the installer is able to provide more value,” he said. “You don’t need to have a Ph.D. or be an engineer to install this anymore.”

Adam Thermos, security consultant and founder of Strategic Technology Group, Milford, Mass., agreed that convergence makes systems easier to install and capable of doing much more.

“If a person steals a card and enters a building, the access control has to note the problem,” he said.

He offers a scenario in which—during winter break—someone enters a building that he isn’t expected to enter. The system can send video of the event to authorities, along with a record of where that person’s card has been for the past five days.

“This is real convergence,” Thermos said.

Taking it a step further, if the owner of the card is registered as driving a red Jeep, for example, the system can then track the movement of every red Jeep that enters and exits the campus.

“Technology helps in extreme situations,” Thermos said, adding that it can even be set to detect the speed of someone’s movements. “The technology does not solve issues but only prevents a percentage of them; it mitigates events.”

Approaching standards

But how much does a school need, and how much can it afford to do? Sorting through upgrade options is a challenge for the schools and the electrical or low-voltage contractors serving them.

To make the process more standardized, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) has stepped in, providing a new set of standards as a guide for security installations on college campuses. It includes sections on administrative issues, definitions, risk assessment and the maintenance of systems. It also includes a table of testing frequencies so that those unfamiliar with communication systems will have guidelines to follow. According to J. Robert Boyer, director of industry affairs at GE Infrastructure Security and chairman of the NEMA communications committee, the measure provides an overview and brings perspective of types of threats, such as weather or intrusion, and the opportunities to secure the school against them.

Traditionally, school administrators provided education. A college or university never truly had any threats that were of major concern, Boyer said.

“But with terrorism being what it is, we felt, at NEMA, that there was a significant need to address this early on,” he said.

“Systems have to be designed and installed to provide benefit in an attack,” Boyer said.

The guidelines include attacks from terror, crime from within the school and weather-related disasters. With the rising occurrence and awareness of safety threats, it has become necessary to integrate systems to contribute to a common objective, he said. Intercoms and paging systems, physical access, and audio/video should function seamlessly in meeting that objective.

“Budgets are going to be a serious consideration,” Boyer said. “I think those doing installations can create specifications that meet the bidding criteria.”

Although the standard is not a mandate, Boyer said, “they would be in excellent shape if they follow this standard. They can use it to ensure they are not creating an over-design.”

“Let’s assume there’s pressure in the community to do this, but everyone has a different perspective,” he said.

In such cases, with numerous interests and a tight budget to work with, the NEMA standard helps the security community address all criteria realistically, he said.

Thermos said every college administration should address its security operational efficiency and how long the school can survive with the existing system, while managing risk and minimizing liability exposure. Although there is no return on investment for security, schools can easily justify the expense.

“It’s not like building dorms that will bring in more students,” Thermos said. “But from a marketing aspect, it allows the school to provide due diligence to its students.”

Today, the field of hardwiring security systems is shrinking, while addressable systems are expanding with IP, voice over Internet protocol, Category 6 cable and wireless.

“In effect, what we’ve got is a situation where even fiber is giving way to Cat 6 and wireless,” Thermos said.

Today, the convergence of IP addressable databases takes the work out of the hands of programmers and places it with installers and school staff members.

Thermos recommended that integrators and contractors get educated on these systems quickly.

“Start taking classes put out by the industry. You can skip the formal education. I still take training myself once a month,” he said.

Training courses provided by technology manufacturers are useful to keep contractors educated about industry changes. There are contractors who did well in the pipe and wire business but are dropped from projects in favor of someone in the wireless sector, Thermos said. As we move out of analog and into the digital environment and hybrid systems, colleges may be unsure of what they need.

“Most vendors we have today started as lock shops,” Thermos said, adding that they have little experience with IP convergence. “They will still sell you the boxes and the wire.”

This leaves contractors to sort out the school’s needs and puts the responsibility squarely in the hands of those knowledgeable integrators and contractors. Thanks to the interest in security convergence from colleges, the ranks of such contractors are now growing.

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at

About the Author

Claire Swedberg

Freelance Writer
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at .

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