Software Talking to Security

John Fogg Comments
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About a decade ago, the companies that produce self-storage management software and security hardware/software decided to draft a universal-interface specification, enhancing the way their products communicated. As more vendors entered the marketplace, each bringing its own interface protocol, the need was clear. Open meetings were scheduled during tradeshows throughout the year to discuss the requirements. Representatives from most of the companies in the industry attended.

As you might imagine, the dynamics of having competitors sitting in the same room searching for a common definition of what should be considered “universal” was challenging, and progress was slow. Finally, one company went to work and drafted a proposed universal interface. It included a proposal for a certification process to ensure the purchaser products would work together. Originally, the document was widely accepted and welcomed by the participating companies.

The intent of an interface is to allow the property-management system to communicate with the security-access and alarm system. Generally, communication is one-way: The property-management system downloads information to the security gate (and alarm) system, which doesn’t send info back. Activity reports with ingress, egress information, etc., can be attained independently through the security system.

Basic instructions downloaded by the property-management software are move-in, move-out, transfer, make-late, pay-up and change pass-code. These instructions are sent to the security system in real time—as they occur. For example, if a unit is rented on the property-management system, pertinent data will be transmitted to the security system. The transmission will include the unit number, tenant pass-code and possibly access hours allowed for each customer.

Interface Concerns

For the self-storage office, the interface makes for a smooth-running operation. Day-to-day functions are accomplished on the property management software and automatically sent to the security system. Office personnel need only input information to the management program, and the gate system is updated immediately. Business is conducted on the computer program, with not much thought given to the gate system. It operates in the background, automatically and instantaneously.

Activities such as the “make-late” function can be completed in bulk without operator intervention. The “pay-up” function is immediately communicated to the security system, restoring customer keypad privileges at the time the bill is paid, and the paid-to-date is advanced.

Without an interface, the site is forced to run the systems independently. This means that when the property-management system recognizes that delinquent renters should be locked out, the site manager must take the data and make the corresponding entries in the site-security system. The same is true for move-ins, move-outs, and any functions affecting correct operation of the gate.

At highly active storage sites without a fully functioning interface, the manager must constantly compare the two databases to ensure accuracy and consistency. Without this constant attention to both databases, you open yourself up to negative possibilities: the risk of losing late-fee revenues, having customers move out without paying their bills, and irritating current renters by locking them out of the property in error.

This is what the universal interface specification was trying to accomplish at its inception.

Progress Report

In a perfect world, companies who write self-storage property-management software, keypad and alarm systems would comply with a universal-interface specification, once accepted. As you might guess, this hasn’t been the case.

Asking competitors to put product bias and egos aside was too much. Although the specifications still exist, the market has changed with new products, features and companies added to the mix. Software modifications and additions are easier to make than hardware changes. Therefore, software vendors had a simpler task to comply and create the interface in their program.

Several software vendors agreed to comply with this original specification. This also gave new software companies who came on the scene something to shoot for as an interface. But without the full cooperation of all security vendors, a functional universal interface couldn’t be developed or tested.

So, not all companies on the management-software side or the security-system side chose to comply with the universal-interface spec. This means software suppliers were forced to write separate interfaces to the other security companies’ systems.

With the universal interface, it is possible to get the results of an interface operation to see if it was successful. It's also possible for the management software to query the status of a unit and get information back from the access system. Other interfaces may or may not give this information.

Changing Capabilities

Through the years, new software companies have burst on the market with their own ideas on how their programs should communicate with gate-access systems. Management software has had many changes and upgrades through the years, too. Security-hardware systems have become more sophisticated and feature-rich; for example, they have the ability to assign multiple gate-access codes to one commercial renter.

These improvements can change how the interface works and necessitate updates. But be careful: When you receive updates or upgrades to one system, no one has invested any communication or development in keeping the interface current.

Building and supporting an interface is an expensive undertaking for the vendors involved. So many players are on the scene that interfacing to all is a monumental task. Do not expect every product to interface with every other product—there are just too many combinations. To write an interface to every product from every company would tie up vital company resources and time. It also becomes a support nightmare.

However, you should expect both companies asked to interface to charge for that service and that product. Beware of companies who say, “Oh yes, we interface with so-and-so company,” or “Yes, the interface to so-and-so company is included.” Representatives of one company cannot tell you what another company’s policy is on interface. These representatives are more interested in selling their product than painting an honest picture of the interface status. Each company and each of their products may be different.

All is not lost, however. Many mainstream providers on both sides have written interfaces to the others’ products. This does not mean that all of one vendor’s products will interface with every system of the other company. There are two sides to an interface: the management software and the security system. Be sure to ask both providers if the particular system you are considering will interface prior to purchase.

Responsible Party

Keep in mind that one problem is determining who is responsible for malfunctions within the interface. It could be either the software or security vendor. Or it could be both. Without a single point of contact and responsibility, resolving difficulties can take a very long time.

Of course, some companies in the self-storage arena provide property management software as well as security systems. Obviously, their products should interface with each other. The universal interface concept never became a reality throughout the industry, but it was the starting point for several companies to build on, helping pioneer the interfaces of today’s self-storage scene.  

John Fogg is general manager for Sentinel Systems, in its 32nd year serving the self-storage market. Sentinel manufactures integrated property-manager software and access-control and individual door-alarm systems. For more information, call 800.456.9955; e-mail jfogg@sentinelsystems.com; visit www.sentinelsystems.com.   

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