November 4, 2004

Closed community welcomes open source

Author: Tina Gasperson

Gated communities are popping up all over the country, in every echelon of society. Security at such communities really does seem to be more urgent when you've got people like Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston living in your neighborhood; not only do you have to keep pesky fans out, but you have to be able to get those cops in quickly to answer domestic dispute calls. Plus, the residents of Country Club of the South in Alpharetta, Ga., where the Houston-Browns and several other big-name celebrities and sports stars make their home, have lots of parties for all their famous friends, and famous friends don't like to be left out in the cold because the guard can't find them on the guest list.With more than 700 homes and three gated entrances connected by long winding roads, guards were having difficulties keeping visitor and contractor entry lists straight, and when they did grant access there was the issue of giving directions from the gate to the host home. According Tami Hamlin, the director of the homeowner's association, there are about 2,000 vehicles asking for access to the development each week, and CCOS management really wanted to be able to accurately track the flow of people through the gates.

The association had already been out looking for a new system because the one it had, which was based on Windows and Microsoft Access, was no longer supported by the vendor.

"When I went out to market to investigate, I discovered that there was very limited action in terms of software packages that would track that," says Hamlin. "Specifically, what I couldn't find were products that were designed for residential applications. There were products for military and commercial gate access, but not residential." She says the challenge was to find a piece of software that would not only provide the security Country Club needs, but was also easy for guards to learn and easy for residents to interface with.

That's when resident Van Page showed up at a homeowner's association meeting with a great idea. Page, co-founder of CapSure, an online data backup service, was tired of long backups at the guard station, rampant misuse of resident entry cards, and unauthorized access by commuters who discovered that their Georgia State Tollway Authority "CruiseCard" controls would also open the gates at CCOS. So he offered to develop a completely new gate control system that would eliminate the snags and add a lot of extra functionality.

Page felt confident that CapSure, in collaboration with BOSS Solutions, an Atlanta-based software development company, could get the job done. Page and Suri Anantharama, a project manager for BOSS, decided to build the application on Red Hat Linux, Apache Web Server, Java, and Sybase SQL Anywhere 8.1. "My first thought was Linux, it was a better operating system for security," says Anantharama. "Then we designed it using Java for the Web-based interface; we chose Sybase SQL because traffic would be huge and we thought a robust database might help."

The new software, dubbed simply Gate Security System (GSS), runs on hardware that would make a minimalist happy. CCOS uses a Dell server, but any Intel-based PC with at least a 20MB hard disk and 512MB of RAM would be sufficient. As for clients, any computer with an Internet connection will do, since GSS is completely Web-based and runs on any browser.

Some of the features in GSS include instant thermal printing of visitor passes that show computer-generated driving directions; a centrally located visitor information database so that each gate has up-to-the-minute instructions; a Web page where residents can enter event information, guests lists, and contractor lists ahead of time; and a secure SmartPass entry system that eliminates default access by non-residents. Perhaps most importantly, the system is easy for security guards to learn. "The security industry has a high turnover rate, so it just had to be simple," says Hamlin.

Anantharama says that guards who were trained on the old system weren't too excited about the change to GSS at first. "The guards were not computer-literate and were used to pressing functions keys. GSS didn't use function keys because it's a Web application." So Anantharama designed some modules so the guard would be able to use their function keys. "It is kind of the best of both worlds -- the 16-bit OS function keys, plus all the goodies of a Web-based application," he says.

The system has been running for two years, and Hamlin says she is very pleased. "There were a few challenges," she says. "We had to educate the residents. We had people who had passes that weren't registered, or who had been using passes that weren't active any more. We had a little bit of resident push-back when we changed over," says Hamlin. "But by and large, it went pretty well. It was definitely needed and it was worth it."

Category:

  • Open Source
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