At the heart of most electronic access systems and their effectiveness or malfunction is application software. While hardware changes less frequently, more often there are upgraded versions of the software that create challenges ranging from troubling beta versions to software bugs.

A system administrator populates the access application database with necessary system information, defining the hardware component’s operational characteristics, cardholder database, alarm monitoring and control functions, system display graphics and third-party interfaces. Such interfaces can include security video, an intercom or human resources, to name a few.

All of this information must be entered accurately for errorless operation. Unfortunately, no one is perfect; so time is required to test and troubleshoot the system’s hardware and software during commissioning.

Unchanging hardware

Access system hardware usually does not evolve on a frequent basis. Buyers update hardware as technology improves or as additional features are added or upgraded. Hardware upgrades usually involve the addition or modification of software code to panel firmware. Firmware is software that is used to manage the panel’s operation, as well as the communication interface to the application database. Its upgrades generally coincide with application software upgrades.

In the past, firmware upgrades meant the physical replacement of the firmware computer chip. Ironically, hardware and software upgrades now can be downloaded, or “flashed,” to a firmware chip through communication lines from an access host computer.

Application software upgrades are more common, with releases come on a regular basis. As with productivity software on a security director’s desktop computer, makers of access software usually release new versions by number such as 2.1 or 4.0.

In most cases, new versions are released only once or twice a year and generally are backward-compatible.

There’s no doubt that software bugs are impossible to avoid; they are common among software applications. A vendor or systems integrator minimizes software bugs through ongoing testing during development.

The best testing takes place in locations of high system use. Before a software version is released for customer distribution, a “beta” version is tested for bugs. A customer site is ideal for the testing of beta software. Typically an existing user, or maybe even a potential buyer, is approached to accept a beta installation to help test and debug it in a real-world application.

It is not common practice, but in some unfortunate circumstances, the buyer does not always know that a beta version is running.

Both buyers and existing users should protect themselves by demanding notice from the access manufacturer of any beta versions prior to the installation of new or upgraded application software. It should be at the buyer’s discretion to decide whether or not to participate in beta testing. Requesting that the integrator or consulting engineer provide language in the system specifications barring the sale or installation of beta version software without expressed written consentcan protect the buyer from unknowingly using a beta version and also protect the dealer from any major problems resulting from the software.

Sidebar: Access Deconstructed

Many components make up a successful electronic access control system, including hardware and software. A system typically includes the following components:

  • A reader control panel maintains autonomous control of the reader access points wired to it. The control panel communicates with access control application software located in a host computer via an industry standard protocol such as serial data or TCP/IP.

  • The access control application software maintains a database of all the necessary information required