17 March 2009

The revolution of access control systems: Welcome, IP!

Centuries ago, people’s access and egress to properties was probably controlled with large stones placed at cave entrances. Then guards, walls and moats succeeded this most basic form of access control. The process became mechanized with the use of wooden bolts and keys, thought to trace back thousands of years to the early Egyptians.

Over the years, as the need to protect family and property intensified, wood was replaced with metal, security locks took over from tumbler locks, and then came various versions of combination locks and time-locking mechanisms.

The arrival of the computer and then the internet changed the face of access control forever.

With this new technology, systems could easily be reconfigured, and access tag and cards were far more cheaply replaced than bunches of keys. There was also no denying the convenience of having only one tag to access multiple entry points within a building, says Kenny Chiu, Marketing Manager of Elvey Security Technologies, a leading supplier of access control solutions and source of expertise for all applications and technologies. “On top of that, access control systems could now provide records of all exits and entries, and data could be extracted from an electronic access control system into a payroll system.”

Used with growing confidence and success around the world, people could have been forgiven for thinking that analogue technology was here to stay, says Chiu, highlighting its reliability and affordability. Yet he has little doubt that the future of access control lies in IP-based video surveillance. “If we look at the development of CCTV equipment, where analogue is fast being supplemented or replaced with IP (Internet Protocol), I have no doubt that access control is following the same trend,” he asserts.


IP technology started making its presence felt in the access control market in 2007, according to Chiu, and its popularity is soaring on the back of its many advantages. These include a better quality transaction log and GUI (Graphic User Interface) allowing, easy and cost-effective integration with other systems.

It also requires less cabling, which has huge cost-saving implications for installations in new buildings, owing to the type and amount of cabling required, he explains.

Highly adaptable, IP also becomes a reliable, functional hybrid when combined with access control and other applications such as building management, CCTV and time-and-attendance systems, for which Chiu says there is growing demand.

Other factors that Zane Greeff; Technical Director, sees driving IP technology into more and more businesses around the world are its cost-saving potential on the larger sites, user-friendliness and infrastructure simplification.

”Today’s electronic access control systems face a number of challenges. For one, sites are getting bigger, hence the need for more users on a system. This increases product, implementation and installation costs as well as makes the overall system more complicated to operate,” he says. “This is particularly true of installations that would have required every foot to be wired with copper.”

Another major departure from the traditional electronic access control system is that the IP-based or digital access control system is web-based. Says Greeff: “In many instances, programming, viewing of data and reports can be done on the network using standard web browsers such as Microsoft Internet Explorer.”

For all the new technology’s advantages, however, he warns that its benefits are directly linked to the following:

  • The reliability of the company network or Ethernet;
  • The overall security of the company network or Ethernet against unauthorized access and hackers;
  • Power supply, whether traditional or PoE (Power over Ethernet) - especially in the event of power-cut or load shedding; and
  • The choice of system designer and installer, who both need to have adequate knowledge of security and network environments using TCP/IP

“That IP access control is readily available is a given,” he says. “The challenge is to balance the cost aspect of it. IP readers which link directly to the company network or Ethernet are very expensive since each unit has its own network port and electronic component.”

Accordingly, his advice to those wanting the best combination of cost-efficiency and efficacy is to use a networkable (TCP/IP ready) multi-door controller. He sketches the following picture: “Think of the controller as the computer controlling the access. Then picture a group of doors and readers connected to it with traditional or RS485 connection. The controller (and there can be more than one) in turn, connects through the network to the mainframe computer in the control room.”

Another key advantage of using IP as a transmission medium is that the cabling typically already exists in most businesses and residential markets today, says Michael Brett, Elvey’s National Sales Manager. “If it doesn't, installing Ethernet cabling is less expensive than installing standard cabling. Furthermore, computer networks allow users to make use of standard PC servers for video management and storage, PCs for controlling the security and access control systems, which ultimately makes the systems easier to use and understand. It is generally easier to work your way through a software programme than it is working with a user manual.”

The solution

According to Elvey Integration Specialist Francois Smuts, the way to ensure better convergence and integration between CCTV and access control security systems sharing the same TCP/IP network is to implement a number of small systems that are linked to the company’s existing network, Ethernet or independent dedicated network. Because such systems may make use of existing company network infrastructures, the end results with regard to implementation, cost, complexity of design and installation time, are all improved,” he explains. On more complex sites, though, he recommends the installation of a separate network to counter possible problems surrounding the integrity and load pressure on the existing network.

This has proved to be a welcome solution for high-risk operations that have multiple sites or branches around the country, says Smuts, who is involved in such installations for Elvey’s blue-chip client base. “By connecting the various branches’ access control systems to the company’s existing network, the security manager is able to manage all access from one central point. Because he only requires a handful of operators to administer the entire system (as opposed to having one operation in each site), the risk of confidential information getting into the hands of the wrong people is greatly reduced. What’s more, head office is able to control non-employees’ access privileges to the various sites far more effectively.”

He continues:”In the past, end-users would often complain about how complicated it was to use administration software, especially when it came with additional features and capabilities that manufacturers sometimes built in to justify the price. Although these features can be necessary in high-security environments, it was frequently a case of over-kill for the small to medium-size companies.”

Bigger isn’t better

Cutting-edge technology aside, users of access control systems are also buying into aesthetics. According to Smuts, people are paying more attention than ever to the appearance of their premises. “As a result, we’re increasingly being called on to supply compact, non-intrusive access control and security systems,” he says. “The trend is definitely toward small, wireless devices which offer substantial cost savings owing to their ease of installation and limited cabling requirements.”

In summary, Brett says that the rise in costs today is forcing companies to reduce costs, which IP will do while enhancing security at all levels since network devices can be monitored individually for connectivity. “The other major benefit of IP is the fact that one is able to deploy redundancy for transmission making use of secure wireless infrastructure as well as cellular infrastructure,” he adds. “And we’re not the only ones who believe that IP is the future. Predictions by Rune Gustavsson of the American Department of Software Engineering and Computer Science (IPD) and Societies of Computation (SoC) estimated in 1997 that the number of PCs in the world was around 60 million, a figure he expected to rise to around 350 million by 2010. In support of this, according to him, was the number of devices that were network-equipped in 1997 amounted to around 10 million, which was likely to reach 3000 million by 2010.”


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