What is an open system? Is there a consensus in the marketplace of the definition of “open?”
Open systems are great at providing freedom for end user customers. But does the term “open system” mean the same thing throughout the industry? In the bad old days before the introduction and broad acceptance of open systems, security vendors produced proprietary systems that used only their own hardware and software. This locked in a customer to a specific vendor’s product line, and if another vendor offered a better product, the only way to get it was to switch to that vendor’s total solution. Open systems changed all that, in theory allowing the selection of best-in-class hardware, software and other components to meet customer requirements. But is the term “open” understood consistently in the market? We asked this week’s Expert Panel Roundtable: What is an open system? Is there a consensus in the marketplace of the definition of “open?” Although there is mostly a consensus in the panel’s answers, we did notice some variables.
Openness technically means that there are open interfaces (APIs) that make it possible to create one cohesive system with products and solutions from different vendors. The benefit is really driven by the requirements of end customers and integrators that want flexibility and reliability but don’t want to be tied to one specific vendor. This is what happened in the IT industry, when companies such as IBM, Wang, etc. used to be “one stop shops,” but market demand for openness drove the success of companies such as, Cisco, Intel and Microsoft. Compatibility and exchangeability can be ensured by using open standards and standardisation organisations such as, IEEE, IETF and MPEG. Some vendors focus more on openness than others, which can typically be noticed by well documented and freely available APIs as well as an investment in engineering resources that can help with integrations.
To be truly open, software must be designed from inception with an open architecture. This architecture must provide a purpose-built set of Application Program Interfaces (APIs) and a Software Development Kit (SDK) that define how partners can integrate their applications. An SDK Forum is a bonus that gives developers support and training to assist with integrations and optimise interoperability with third-party software or hardware vendors. Solution Certification provides documented testing and guidelines to ensure interoperability. The certification process helps integrators and customers be confident with the enhanced functionality from the combined solution. Another criteria of openness would be to look at a company’s business model and partner programmes. Do they interface consistently and deeply with Camera Partners, Solution Partners, Technology Hardware partners, and do they have a Developer’s Forum? Do they provide partners with the technical and marketing support to help them develop and promote their innovative integrations?
In our industry, the use of “open systems” sometimes includes when manufacturers share their application interfaces (APIs) to allow other manufacturers to develop drivers to achieve desired interoperability. This supports the idea of openness in that the APIs are openly shared, but at the same time, it creates a “develop once and maintain forever” scenario in which the end user is more or less locked in to using the specific manufacturer’s products, unless he/she is prepared to make a new investment by having additional drivers developed. Google defines an open system as one in which “components and protocols conform to standards independent of a particular supplier.” This suggests that an interface standard is used rather than a proprietary API. The use of independent standards enables involved parties to better utilize resources and achieve future-proof systems. Standard interfaces are also developed to co-exist in complex cyber security setups, regardless of manufacturer.
An open system engages with other systems (from other manufacturers), either for inbound connections, outbound connections, or both. The opposite is a closed or proprietary system. For security, an open system follows industry standards to allow interaction with other systems, such as a video management system (VMS) or network video recorder (NVR) able to interface with network cameras from multiple vendors. The core open standard is IP or the Internet Protocol first developed for the Information Technology (IT) industry. Building upon this example, the ONVIF (Open Network Vendor Interface Forum) and PSIA (Physical Security Interoperability Alliance) set further open system standards under which basic functions, commands, and actions can be called out. For video surveillance, ONVIF-S is the primary open standard as applicable for video surveillance cameras to communicate with VMS or NVR systems. Arecont Vision has been a proponent of open systems since the company launched in 2003.
Open systems allow more choice for end users, streamlining installation and making product integration easy and efficient. For some smaller manufacturers with great products, this means more interoperability among technologies, such as cameras with video management systems. Today's security leaders look for the kind of flexibility that open systems offer so that they are not locked into a specific manufacturer when they need upgrades. This means that if a customer loves the cameras they have, but wants to upgrade the VMS they are using, they can do so without sacrificing the camera's capabilities. I think we've come a long way in developing standards for interoperability, and more specifically with video surveillance through organisations like ONVIF. What’s critical in making these standards effective is getting buy-in from product manufacturers and making sure that they benefit from their innovations while collaborating to create open systems.
An open system is able to adapt to open standards on every level, meaning from the database, operating system, interfaces (REST, SOAP, ODBC) to cabling infrastructure (IP/bus topology) to controller hardware and field devices (sensors). Offline devices should be able to connect through open standards, such as the OSS standard for offline locks, as well. Open standards can only work when multiple manufacturers achieve consensus on this and the market (read: end user) is willing to use them. That means that security on every level is key.
We have often heard people refer to an “open system” as a system where the end-user is not locked into a specific dealer or manufacturer for upgrades or integration. I think that is an older interpretation as it would be hard to believe anyone is still trying to “lock” a customer in rather than earning their business. From our perspective, an open system is one that works with any other system without incurring additional license/service or customisation fees. For instance, VIZpin Access Control works with any other video, alarm or fire system, and the installer can integrate on-site or in the cloud.
An open system allows end users to extend system flexibility and client options to build best-in-class security solutions that maximise existing investments, reduce costs and extend product lifecycle. Being truly "open" means going above and beyond when designing your product line, keeping in mind the ability for end-users to easily interface your product with other open-platform solutions. That's why offering an open-platform design must be coupled with the ability to provide exceptional support through training, follow-up and innovation as they are brought to market. We have seen a significant shift to more and more manufacturers offering open-platform solutions in an effort to satisfy clients and their need for increased ROI interoperability and flexibility. With groups such as PSIA and ONVIF working to standardise these platforms, the industry is taking steps to shift their way of thinking, but as with any change, it's slow and still in progress.
When it comes to security, the word “open” can at first seem at odds with the whole concept. However, open systems are those which are specifically designed to work effectively (but securely) with other complementary components. This offers a broad range of options to security users and specifiers/installers, allowing for choice to be based upon suitability, expertise or cost – rather than being confined to components that allow integration, but may otherwise not be the most suitable for the application. The definition of “open” systems is always evolving. In the initial stages, manufacturers produced components within their own range (or with close partners) that where “open” to integration with one another. Now, however, “open” systems generally refer to any security component that runs on common or standardised protocols and is therefore highly networkable with many other options. This could include specialised sensors, legacy components or even potential future investments.
An open system is defined as a system that conforms to standards such that it is vendor independent. A great example is Z-Wave, any product built and certified to the Z-Wave standard will work with any other Z-Wave-certified product. There are clear benefits to this. When designing a product, you only need to design to the standard, and when buying products the Z-Wave logo tells you it will work. Unfortunately, many people use “open” to suit their purposes. For example, a software solution is not open just because it can use another manufacturer’s hardware. And just because a piece of hardware has an API doesn’t make it open. Being open goes far beyond these narrow criteria.
Can a company that offers an open API legitimately claim it has an open system? Most in the industry would agree that it can, but isn’t that “openness” limited by the number and currency of the available integrations that take advantage of the API? Isn’t a user excluded from using a new technology in the market that hasn’t (yet?) been integrated to the open API? Isn’t openness limited by the extent to which any available integrations are kept up to date? On the other hand, does open integration using standards limit the “depth” of integrations to a lowest common denominator? In short, there are still interesting aspects of “open systems” to be considered, and not always a simple answer to a seemingly simple enough question: Is it open?
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