Trends In Systems Integration

What is a "systems integrator?" Two years ago in this space, I asked that question and found some confusion about the answer, especially among our customers. Now, just two years later, it's common to hear a customer ask for an integrated security command post or a touchscreen control panel for the systems in their conference room. Systems integration has become something our customers want and, as such, it has become a vital skill for low-voltage contractors.

What are the skills required for systems integration? Let's review.

Single System Integration
Some of the systems we sell, like fire alarm, may consist of components from a single manufacturer. Integrating these components into a functional system is usually fairly straightforward.

Other systems, like professional audio, are commonly created from multiple manufacturers' products. Integrating these disparate components into a working system may be a challenge. And, as more audio components evolve from analog to digital, the integration skills will change. Today, we deal with impedance and level settings. Tomorrow, we will deal with IP networking and device drivers. Welcome to the future of systems integration.

Control Systems
Most low-voltage contractors offer more than one type of system to their customers and integrating these different systems via a common control interface is another vital skill set of a systems integrator.

These control systems, such as those offered by Crestron and AMX, provide a custom, unified user interface to a group of different systems which may range from sound to video to room lighting and more. The user benefits greatly from this type of systems integration.

Customers are now asking us to integrate all kinds of systems. I've seen specs that required integration of CCTV, access control, fire alarm and infant abduction on a single common control platform.

Clearly there are new digital hardware and software skills needed for this kind of integration in addition to the skill set needed to design and integrate each individual system.

Functional Systems Integration
Integration of two or more systems can extend beyond a common control system to functional integration. Let's take the security systems example again. Consider a facility with both a card access and CCTV system. If the access control system has a CCTV switcher interface, it can issue commands directly to the CCTV system. Then, when someone presents their access card to a reader, the access control system can switch a CCTV monitor to display a view of the person at that door. Some school intercom systems can also control CCTV cameras. There are many other possibilities for this kind of "functional integration."

Integration via Networking
Today, many of our systems still communicate by proprietary or antiquated networks. Access control designers seem to like RS485 networks, for example. And, every piece of audio DSP wants to communicate over an RS232 path forcing us all to carry RS232 to USB adapters.

Most of these systems will eventually convert to IP over ethernet. CCTV cameras will have IP addresses so you can connect them to the internet and view them from a browser. Video projectors will have ethernet connections so you can present your Powerpoint slides to a remote audience over the company wide-area network. Digital video and audio will co-exist on the same network as financial data (although I prefer a separate media network). Actually, all of these examples of integration over a shared network are possible right now.

This suggests a third vital skill set for systems integrators, namely network certification. There are several certifications offered by providers like Microsoft and Cisco. There will be others and a network skill set will be a moving target for the foreseeable future.

As a side note, I can see three types of networks in some buildings. A "data" network will carry business computing. A "media" network, with managed switches and minimized latency, will carry audio and video. A "secure" network will carry building control, life safety and security system data. Each of these networks has different requirements and expecting a single network to serve all three functions may be asking too much. Also, I suspect AHJs (authorities having jurisdiction) will begin to demand a "secure" network, devoid of any corruption by other systems, before approving building life safety systems that operate over a network.

Event Monitoring, Responding, Reporting
Here's a final skill set for systems integration. Think of a long-term care facility with a fire alarm, card access and nurse call system. A common pocket paging system can integrate these three systems and report selected events to health care providers, security and maintenance personnel. A common computer program can log these events, providing customized reports for facility management.

Individual systems, like the nurse call, may offer a pocket-page and report capability. The challenge to a systems integrator is to make this work for all of the systems in the facility.

Disturbing Trends
Systems integration adds value to the products we sell helping us maintain a position above commodity sellers. But there are disturbing trends, too. In particular, I am concerned about certain large suppliers who have implemented proprietary systems integration. If you buy a building HVAC control system from one of these suppliers, you can integrate it with that company's security and fire alarm systems-but if you buy any of these systems from another supplier, no integration is possible.

This situation makes it very attractive to the customer to do all of their business with one supplier. For a low-voltage contractor, that's great if you are allied with one of these suppliers. It's a problem if you're not. And, of course, some of these suppliers have their own national chain of "company stores," effectively locking out all independent contractors.