Part 1: The Right Time for New Security Technology
Part 2: How to Avoid Beta Technology
The Right Time for New Security Technology
By Sean Ahrens - September 2008 - Security
New technology presents a dilemma for facility executives. On the one hand, it offers an opportunity for improved performance. The improvement may come in the form of enhanced durability or gains in energy efficiency. Or the product may introduce new features that meet an organizational need.
At the same time, any new product presents a certain amount of risk. By definition, it can’t be “tried and true,” and every facility executive can tell stories about products that didn’t deliver what was promised.
Even facility executives who have been burned by a new product in the past can’t afford to turn their backs on technology innovations. The real question is, how can one tell when it’s too early to install a new technology?
That question comes into sharp focus when security systems are being considered. Security systems play a critical role in protecting people and property. And the capabilities of systems have been greatly enhanced by innovations in technology. Given that security systems are expected to last many years, and that funding for replacement systems can be hard to get, it’s important that facility executives strike the right balance between embracing innovations and avoiding “bleeding edge” products.
The Software Story
The issue is especially complex when it comes to products that have a significant software component.
The word “software” often makes facility executives think of operating systems or other complicated programs. But software can be very small. It can automate many tasks that otherwise would require a graphical user interface. In the past, this small software or “instruction-set” was loaded on non-volatile, Read Only Memory (ROM). This firmware had to be extensively tested, because the chip that held the information was printed on a circuit board and could not be altered after the fact. Anyone who has tried to replace an integrated circuit in the field may have experienced what might be called the popcorn effect. The popcorn effect occurs when the heat from the soldering iron causes surrounding resistors and transistors on a printed circuit board to explode — pop.
Early versions of firmware could not be patched, making faulty firmware costly to fix, because it could not be replaced without replacing the entire printed circuit board. Today, however, firmware memory can be read, written to and re-written to. The process of updating firmware simply involves unlocking the memory where the firmware resides. Once unlocked, the new firmware can overwrite the old firmware.
This capability allows manufacturers, or third parties, to develop new firmware for manufacturer peripherals. The upside is that new functions can be added to distributed technologies. Panels for these systems use the same types of memory modules to control outputs and functions of their distributed field panels.
But there’s also a potential downside. A software manufacturer can launch a product that doesn’t work flawlessly at first, then issue patches to correct those problems in an effort to maintain or create market share. Another approach is to issue a new release or version that offers additional functionality but may also contain corrections of problems with the previous release. With high-speed data networks in the workplace, software updates, patches or feature improvements can be seamlessly distributed with minimal cost to the manufacturer.
If a manufacturer issues a product before all the bugs have been worked out, customers become unknowing beta testers. Beta testing is well-established among software manufacturers. But in a real beta test, the user knows that the software is still being debugged.
Clearly, not all manufacturers issue products with known flaws. But it is a real possibility that an individual or organization could be serving as a beta tester without knowing it.
Today, technology changes rapidly and manufacturers must be able to move quickly to maintain market share. The struggle for market share spawns innovation, and innovation brings new products to market. To maintain market share, companies must develop new products to meet customer needs or to adapt to a competitor’s product. This is why competing manufactures quickly match new products and features. In this environment, manufacturers have a choice: get to market with a competing product quickly and fix it through software or not have a similar product and lose market share.
In the past, manufacturers were not able to adapt quickly to the changing product landscape. But with software-based products, multiple manufacturers can have essentially the same hardware components in their respective system with their own, specially created software controlling it.