Access Control Software Links to Endless Possibilities

The surge of computer database use in business has eliminated much of the dreaded paper trail, resulting in a more efficient way to organize information. Today, just about every major company maintains its own database for each of its departments.

Still, the notion of inputting 200 employees to access control, human resources (HR) and accounting databases is enough to inflame a serious case of carpal tunnel syndrome. Two hundred employees multiplied by three databases equals a lot of time as well as potential errors, time and security breeches.

While throwing a security database into the mix intensifies these slip-ups, its addition can also rectify and eliminate such costly and annoying errors. A skilled security systems integrator who can properly install an access control system and link its database to others will become an end user’s best friend.

Now, changes made in HR will trigger complementary changes in the access control database. Say goodbye to additions, deletions and modifications falling through the cracks. Thanks to increased computer literacy, user-friendly and intuitive graphical user interfaces (GUIs), and extensive manufacturer support, creating interfaces between these databases is definitely doable.

Features like error checking, real-time updates and enhanced security make database management easier with fewer snafus than ever. According to manufacturers and integrators, end users are requesting this service, and when demand is high, integrators’ bottom lines stand to benefit.

Functions, Features Are Similar, But One Size Does Not Fit All
With manufacturers like DSX of Dallas; Lexington, Mass.’ Software House; Torrance, Calif.’s AMAG and Amityville, N.Y.’s Continental Instruments offering a variety of access control software and databases, integrators have various options when selecting brands. Many integrators argue most software, in terms of functions and features, are widely similar, but service and technical support can make or break the manufacturer (see “Access Software Packs Hard-Hitting Performance” in July 2004 issue).

While some manufacturers’ software runs on proprietary database engines, many types of access control software are powered by a Microsoft Access™ or Microsoft SQL™ engine, says Terry Hillinger, president of Mako Systems, an integrator from Sun Valley, Calif. SQL, pronounced as separate letters or as “sequel,” stands for structured query language and serves as the standard language used to request information from a database.

Information from the database can then be sorted by the fields and searched by using any of these fields as criterion. If integrated with other security systems, an alarm event, for example, can be linked to a badge number and then linked to CCTV footage. These all become another field in the database, Hillinger explains.

While these features and functions are relatively similar across the types of software, one type does not necessarily fit all, integrators and manufacturers say. While Access and SQL are both flexible and versatile, Hillinger says the possibilities of SQL are endless.

Craig Ehrich, applications engineer for Vancouver, Wash.’s security integrator Entrance Controls, recommends his clients go with SQL versions. SQL is a more robust database, with added security and faster handling of data, he maintains.

In the past, SQL has been considered more expensive than Access, Ehrich says, but that is no longer the case. Free access control software powered by Microsoft SQL™ Desktop Edition (MSDE), eliminates integrators from spending $2,000 to purchase SQL, he explains. Another benefit of MSDE is it’s easy to maintain and administer, which negates any need for a database administrator (DBA).

Still, MDSE can only support databases with eight or fewer servers of less than 2GB. Thus, determining the needs and realistic capabilities of the end user is a crucial step in choosing a type of database, Hillinger says.

Linking Databases Can Be Accomplished in Several Ways
Once the integrator and end user have selected the appropriate software package, installed hardware and software, and established the access control/security database, it’s time to save some poor data entry clerk’s finger dexterity and connect the database with others in the building.

Common commercial databases can be linked to access control databases. In fact, James Reno, AMAG’s technical services manager, says he hasn’t met a commercial database he couldn’t “talk to.”

Some manufacturers offer that service as a value add, and most people in an end user’s IT department should be capable of the feat. Integrators have many options for building interfaces, but when working with Access or MSDE, linking databases in these systems is something an integrator can tackle, assuming they’re computer-savvy, Ehrich reassures.

The ODBC is established through middleware, or software that creates a connection between two separate applications such as HR’s PeopleSoft™ and an access control system. While Ehrich says middleware might differ among vendors, some create a separate import/export database that stores record modifications.

If an employee were terminated, the HR department could flag their record with an ODBC connection. That information would go through the import/export database to the access control database, which would revoke access rights in the time it takes to send an E-mail.

Client’s Capabilities, Equipment Should Determine Interface Type Another option is to establish a file transfer protocol (FTP) feed that can be programmed to update records periodically, instead of in real-time. For example, the security system will delete, add or modify any changes made to other databases during the day. End users can also choose to use a combination of the two methods, Reno says. Less urgent alterations like adds and modifications can be made every night, whereas terminations can be made instantly, in real-time.

Because changes are made in real-time, ODBC is the most effective method of keeping records current and up-to-the-minute, but selecting an interface depends on the client. Integrators must consider the needs and capabilities of the client. ODBC connections require a fast and stable network, whereas FTP feeds can be done via dial-up.

According to Ehrich, both types of interfaces have similar security risks. ODBC connections and FTP feeds require network connectivity, so they are somewhat vulnerable to anyone with network access. To keep these databases secure, Reno says, many end users rely on standard Windows™ authenticators like username and password. Securing the information traveling between databases can be done in a variety of ways.

Creating a secure FTP feed that makes modifications every 24 hours or so prevents continual access to other, more sensitive databases like HR and payroll. Traditional network security can also protect these databases and their interfaces, Reno says. (See “Securing Networked Security Systems” on page 90 of the September 2004 issue.)

Manufacturer Training, Support Gives Dealers Proper Tools, Smarts
To learn more about these systems, integrators can rely on the experts: manufacturers and their training sessions. Gibson says DSX training lasts about a week and requires students to pass a test before receiving a certificate. DSX and AMAG require their dealers to have certified technicians on staff.

Some manufacturers offer end-user training, but integrators shoulder the burden. Hillinger staggers the training into several two-hour sessions spaced apart by two weeks.

“From our experience, giving s
omeone a four-hour class just leaves them swimming and confused,” he explains.

End users catch on relatively quickly, integrators say, especially compared to the systems of the past. “I used to have to show people the difference between left-click and rightclick,” Ehrich recalls.

In today’s day and age, the need for access control systems is a no-brainer for most commercial and industrial end users, especially with their ability to integrate with other security systems such as fire detection and CCTV. Considering the amount of data access control databases can store as well as their capability to interface and share information with other databases, these systems are an easy sell to end users.

Offering access control database integration and interfacing proves profitable and satisfying for installers who can meet their end users’ desire for flexibility, growth and security.

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