The use of information technologies (IT) for physical security is a no-brainer. This is likely why Physical Security Information Management (PSIM) has received such attention over the last few years.

PSIM combines physical security devices and systems with IT, improving situational awareness and response. With PSIM, new opportunities are created for enhanced data collection, management and analysis and more efficient and effective security operations. Despite these benefits, however, there are problems — both marketing and technical —with PSIM.

On the marketing front, PSIM has been positioned in a manner that oversimplifies reality. Because of the IT connection, PSIM is often envisioned as a front-end software product that resides in the operations center, providing a graphical view of security assets, some out-of-the-box integration with other devices and systems, a degree of centralized policy management (which governs relationships between devices and systems) and analysis and reporting capabilities.

Unfortunately, this marketing approach masks the technical challenges that inhibit PSIM success stories. The first challenge is integration. The integration of data, events and control functions from multiple devices and systems is the keystone of PSIM, since all other functions are contingent upon integration. Integration is a major problem, however, because different devices and systems cannot, in most instances, communicate without some type of normalization. For effective PSIM to occur, those devices and systems – from enterprise IT systems to building management systems and from monitoring technologies to emergency alert and notification systems – must be able to communicate.

However, most PSIM software products cannot natively tie together all of the different devices and systems witnessed in a given deployment. Often, integration is not a function of PSIM software, but a service typically performed by the PSIM software provider or third-party integrator. While some PSIM products may come with pre-configured hooks into some of the most popular access control, video management or other systems, integration with the vast majority of devices and systems involves laborious, hand-coding by engineers and software developers. End-users are often left with a custom and complex one-off that is not scalable (to accommodate new and different devices and systems) or portable (to accommodate easy replication across other facilities or locations). This seriously diminishes the value of many PSIM deployments beyond the short term.

Policy management is the second technical challenge, and it is equally critical to effective PSIM. The ability to set up dynamic rules and policies dictates automation and response capabilities. Yet, most policy management is centralized, i.e., located on a server in the operations center. All the data and events from the different devices and systems, sometimes remotely located, must flow back to one location, where automated decisions are then made and sent back to the assets. If there are bandwidth constraints or network connectivity issues, critical communications (e.g., automatic slewing of a camera to a specific position or distribution of a notification to first responders) may be delayed or interrupted. Under these conditions, centralized policy management could overwhelm the network and, thus, undermine the very capabilities that PSIM is supposed to enable.

To overcome these challenges, end-users must consider or reconsider what PSIM means. One-off deployments must give way to openness and scalability that consider the breadth and depth of capabilities that end-users require. Centralized policy management must yield to distributed, network-based policy management that lessens the burden on networks by putting automation in the field on multiple routers, servers or gateways.

Far from a single software product, these solutions will involve an ecosystem of products. Among the products will be configurable, network-based integration and distributed policy management software that can serve as the backbone for the graphical management, centralized policy management and reporting mechanisms of today’s PSIM. Fully productized PSIM offerings that feature all of these capabilities will provide the basis for effective PSIM solutions going forward.

PSIM has the opportunity to rewrite the rules of physical security, but security professionals must first overcome the limitations that result from one-off, hand-coded solutions and centralized policy management. IT approaches provide the answer for physical security challenges, but it is important to ask the right questions about PSIM solutions. End-users should make sure that proposed vendor products and services can achieve the open, scalable, distributed solutions that effective PSIM demands.

Patrick Esposito is co-founder, president and chief executive officer of Augusta Systems Inc.