Virtualization, it’s a word and a concept I heard several times today at ASIS and it’s a technology that you should become more familiar with.  I am going to try to give you two perspectives, one from the end-user and one for the systems integrator and dealer.  You will have to read SDM and Security blogs, and at least parts of both to get my take on why it makes sense for end-users as well as dealers / integrators. 

First, what is virtualization?  It is an enabling capability of software or a combination of software and hardware to appear or act as another piece of software or a device.  Not so clear? Let’s try an example, or two, to make sure that we are all on the same page.  While this may not be a perfect example, we’ll try pop culture as you might have seen the movie Avatar.  In this movie, a human, with the aid of software and hardware, is able to function as an alien-being on a planet that would not otherwise support us “normal oxygen-breathing humans”.  But rather than strapping an oxygen tank on a human, the human controls an alien body and breathes that planet’s noxious air; the Avatar (alien body) is a kind of “virtual” body for the human that controls it.  

Didn’t see the movie?  Ok let’s try a business / IT application that is a bit closer to home and that has become widely popular:  server virtualization software.  VMware and Microsoft, among others, offer server virtualization software. It is valuable to businesses because, among other things, it saves money, power, and IT resources and reduces complexity by allowing applications to be configured and deployed on a far more predictable and consistent basis, regardless of the underlying hardware and operating system. 

So what are physical security vendors doing with virtualization? Plenty of vendors have or support virtualization in different forms.  NVR vendors, along with Ethernet switches, "virtualized" (e.g. eliminated the need for) video matrix switches several years ago.   A few access control vendors (such as HID and ISONAS) are using virtualization to eliminate access control panels by implementing panel functions as a combination of access control configuration and management software that runs on a PC/server and intelligent credential readers, that contain an authorized user list and policies database. 

But at this year’s ASIS conference, I am seeing new uses of virtualization.  HID is talking about virtual credentials.  Rather than the tried and true ID badges / cards, you could use a cell phone equipped with Near Field Communications technology.  The phone can not only be “something you have” like the ID badge / RFID or smart card, it can also provide multifactor authentication by also becoming a PIN pad to provide authentication via “something you know” (such as a PIN code).  Not ready to say goodbye to ID badges?  Consider that studies have shown that people realize that they have misplaced / lost their phone in 6 minutes.  I have gone hours, if not an entire weekend, before I realized that I misplaced my ID badge.  And you can send commands to help locate and/or deactivate your phone.  So security is enhanced with this sort of smart / virtual credential.

Raytheon has implemented a virtual world module in their command and control software that allows users and integrators to simulate events in the real world to help train operators and gauge their response / performance to events.  This virtual event simulation saves time and money as opposed to having real-life drills. 

And finally, while IP camera manufacturers have had the ability to send video direct to storage, without the aid of a DVR or NVR for a while, there are now a couple of vendors (such as IPVision Software and Mobotix) that offer VMS software that virtualizes (eliminates) recording servers, a.k.a DVRs and NVRs.  This type of virtualization, which has nothing to do with using VMware on PC / servers, allows for a single instance of the VMS software (and one server) to support hundreds of cameras.  Obviously, with that kind of scalability, you aren’t going to need as many copies / licenses for the VMS software and you are going to save  a lot of money by not having to buy, maintain, power, and cool those underlying servers.

Does this sound too good to be true? Just ask your IT counterparts.  They love server virtualization.  And they will tell you that VoIP business phone systems, which virtualized (eliminated) the PBX, have not only made adds, moves and changes easier, but it opened up a bunch of other capabilities, including unified messaging (getting voicemail, SMS texts, faxes and emails from one source).

So what does virtualization mean to enterprise security end-users?  Virtualization is going to reduce your security system costs in terms of system level purchase prices.  You just won’t have to buy as much gear.  Because you are not buying as much, you don’t have as much to pay for in terms of installation and in long term operational maintenance expenses.  Beyond cost savings, in many cases, you will find these virtualized products reduce complexity, without sacrificing operational functionality.  In fact, you may find these virtualized products enable new capabilities that your traditional security systems and devices couldn’t begin to offer. 

You can probably find a few other examples of virtualization in security. The point is virtualization is a capability that you should be looking for in your next security products / system. You can probably find a few examples in security. The point is virtualization is capability that you should be looking for in your next security products.

Bob Beliles is president at B2 Convergence Consulting. Previously he was vice president of enterprise business development for Hirsch Electronics.