Your Detention Control System Needs, Five Years Later

Your Detention Control System Five Years LaterEveryone loves that new product smell and shine, but as with any product, the new can wear off and the problems start to arise with a system, including your facility’s detention control system. The original install may have gone smoothly, you got exactly what you wanted out of the integrator, your feature set is perfect, your new touchscreen computers are the top of the line; it’s time to sit back, relax, and let the system take care of your security needs. But, that system that is taking care of those needs is one day going to need to be upgraded or even replaced entirely, and you need to be thinking of that now and budgeting for those needs. Five years from that initial installation, there are going to be some serious upgrades that need to be made. In this article, we will cover a few of the major considerations that you will need to prepare for at that five year mark.

The Ole Gray Mare Ain’t What She Used To Be!

You’ve experienced it with your own personal computer: when you first get it out of the box, it runs like a champ, but three years of pictures and word processing and now the thing takes 20 minutes just to log in. Well, that same technology is used with your detention control system’s touchscreen interface. And, just like your occasional need to purchase the latest PC, you need to plan the same for your control system. A PC’s magnetic hard drive can be expected to last around 5 years. Even if you implement a solid-state drive, you are still looking at a 5 year lifespan (one of the common misconceptions about solid state drives!). Additionally, the crystals which dictate the clock for the PC’s processor will degrade over time and thus affect the performance and life expectancy of the PC.

Given this known quantity, it is recommended that you plan to replace your control system computers every 3-5 years. Think of it this way: would you rather be scrambling to buy a new control computer at midnight on a Saturday and get the right people involved to load it up for Central Control, or would you rather budget to replace so many PC’s per year and avoid that headache? I’d go with the second option every time.

The One Constant In the Software World is Change

If the software giants like Microsoft and Apple have proven anything, it’s that they love to change everything about the world every three years. At least every three years, Microsoft plans to release a new version of its Windows operating system. Sure, they advertise a Long-Term-Support schedule for the previous version, but then suppliers stop carrying it and availability dries up, and then you are stuck paying for a MSDN subscription just to get one copy of the previous version. Besides that, once the new version comes out, updates and security patches for the old version slowly but surely tail off, meaning that your PC running that old version soon becomes exposed to new viruses.

This known practice of new Windows releases is not the main problem, though. The main problem relates to the application software running your jail. Many times, the vendors who develop these “Human-Machine-Interface” (HMI) applications can be slow to adopt the latest version of the operating system due to the cost involved in developing and testing for it. This can mean that even though you have a necessity to upgrade or replace your computers, you may not be able to re-use your current HMI application software on the latest version of the operating system.

So what do you do? Well, if you have a “commercial” HMI application provided by a “big” software house, then you need to consider two things before rushing to upgrade your software. First, you need to check with the integrator who provided the software to ensure that they are ready for the change. Many detention control system integrators write custom software which is specific to certain versions of the HMI application. Additionally, they may have provided a driver which enables the communications between the Programmable Logic Controller and the HMI application. This driver may only be supported on certain versions of the HMI application, and upgrading the HMI may cause it to go haywire (true story!). So, if you are using this type of solution, always contact your integrator before venturing into this effort. Sure, it will cost you money just to talk to them on the phone, and they will likely also want some money to help with the upgrade, but consider the cost in time and security risk if you don’t.

One thing that is worth noting at this point is the fact that MTI’s HMI application, ProVision, helps to avoid the scenario given above. Because we develop both the software and hardware that goes into your detention control system, we have direct control over the upgrade path and the communication protocol. There is no third party driver that enables our ability to communicate between our HMI and our PLC. Also, MTI’s ProVision software is developed entirely in the latest version of Microsoft’s .NET Framework, which means it is both backwards compatible and forwards compatible with Microsoft’s operating systems. While other solutions are proprietary to the integrator that supplied your system, with our system, you are proprietary to the manufacturer that makes both the PLC and the software, putting you directly at the source.

Keep Ahead Of Your Detention Control System Needs

There are other small cost items to consider at the 2, 3, and 5 year marks. Make plans to vacuum out every cabinet and computer involved in your control system twice a year.  Plan to check screw terminals and ground terminals for secure fitting and corrosion once a year. Plan to replace the batteries in your battery back-ups every 2 years. Check for firmware upgrades for your network switches and controllers once every year or two. Although these upgrades may not always be necessary, some may provide vital patches for security related issues.

If you plan ahead, especially on the large-quantity items like computers, you can save money and avoid stress and security risks.