Putting Together the Pieces

Although colleges and universities have used card-based systems for many years, most have not thoroughly evaluated how or whether these systems should be combined or interfaced. As a result, college administrators have found themselves with separate systems for such things as debit cards, library cards, telephone credit cards and access-control cards to various facilities.

The process of bringing sense to this chaos is generally not easy. Many of the existing systems have been installed by different groups within the institution, including administration, housing, security, food service and other individual departments. Bringing these groups together, with their differing needs and desires, often is the most difficult aspect of developing a common-card approach.

Developing a system that uses a single card in support of several different campus functions requires more than integration of the card-it requires integration of the information contained on the cardholder files for each system. Without this, campus police may find that they do not have access to certain facilities, since the administration of that system has not granted access in their system. Those same departments may realize that their own system requires a significant amount of time in order to keep the data files updated.

Getting started The first step in developing a strategy for integrating campus systems is to identify what systems are being considered. These may include the student photo-identification card, a debit card, a long-distance-telephone credit card, library card, medical-services card, time and attendance for faculty or staff, and access control. Other existing or potential uses also should be identified and included in the decision. For each of these uses, the specific group of individuals who need to carry the card should be determined.

Selection of the best card type is the next step. Most colleges and universities rely upon the PVC card on which the student's photo and other related data are printed. The card may incorporate one or more encoding technologies used by the various systems. The most common form in use is the magnetic stripe. Care should be taken to ensure that high-energy magnetic-stripe technology is used. Credit cards generally rely upon low-energy cards that can be erased easily by proximity to magnetic sources. High-energy magnetic stripes are far less sensitive.

Proximity-type cards use radio frequency (RF) technology to transmit a specific number to the reader. Most receive the energy to do this from the electrical field transmitted by the card reader itself. These are called passive cards.

Active proximity cards contain a battery to power the transmitter. Although these have the advantage of generally longer read ranges, the cards are thicker and must be replaced when the battery runs down. Passive proximity cards are available in models thin enough to be printed in a standard ID-badge printer and pass through a swipe-type magnetic-stripe reader. Thus, proximity, magnetic-stripe and even bar-code technologies may be used on the same card. Doing so provides integration between different systems at the card level.

Different systems on campus may share the same card technology. In order to do so, the information contained on the card must be the same for both systems.

Magnetic-stripe cards are unique in that they allow information to be recorded on two separate tracks. Different systems, such as time and attendance and debit-card systems, can share the same card by recording the card number for the debit-card system on one track, and the time-and-attendance number on another track. This allows the separate systems to record their own information independently from each other on the same card. It does, however, require the card to be encoded twice. For most other card technologies, the exact number contained on the card must be used in all systems.

Gathering information One very important consideration in developing a strategy for combining card-based systems on campus is the need to maintain the cardholder information. It is this effort that often is not considered when requesting a new system. Without careful planning, every system will have to be maintained separately. Determining a means of updating the individual systems from a common file can significantly reduce the manpower needed to maintain the data within individual systems.

In order to develop such a common file, first determine all of the information needed by all of the systems. Include in this review the format and length of each of the fields in the various systems. Using this information, a single file containing most of the information needed by all of the systems can be established.

Once the data needs are identified, look for sources of that data. Sometimes the information for all of the defined cardholder groups is available in a single file, such as a student/staff database. Other times, information from separate files, such as a registrar's database for students and a personnel database for faculty and staff, must be combined. It is best to create a single file from these sources rather than attempt to develop separate load systems from different sources for each separate card-based system. The file should contain all or as many as possible of the data elements necessary to support the systems that may use the information.

Using the ID-badge system database for this master file provides several benefits. The badging system must, however, be capable of accepting data input from the source files, flexible enough to store all of the data elements necessary and capable of spooling data off to the various systems. These requirements may dictate use of another system for storage of the central file.

Since most updating is performed at night when system usage is low or systems may be taken out of service, timing and frequency of the data processing and transfer are important. If the transfer of data from these sources is conducted daily, the systems similarly may be updated daily. If other processing must first be completed, the information may not be available to the card systems until too late to update them before dawn.

Some flexibility must be provided in the individual systems or in the primary master file to allow direct update in the event transfers cannot be made quickly. Procedures may be developed to provide temporary cards until the systems are updated.

Performing several different tasks with a single system is attractive in that wiring, service and file maintenance can be shared. Manufacturers of debit-card systems also offer to handle time and attendance, access control and alarm monitoring within the same system. Access-control systems offer time and attendance, and alarm monitoring.

The important question, however, is who will be responsible for administering the specific system? If alarms are to be monitored, which group within the institution should monitor the alarms?

Remember that all systems generate two types of alarms-normal-activity alarms and service alarms. Normal-activity alarms, such as debit-card transactions, should be displayed on a terminal at the office of the responsible department. Service alarms, such as the fact that certain readers are out of service, might be sent directly to a terminal within the department servicing the equipment, although procedures could be established that require a phone call to the service department.

Nearly all systems employ two distinct communication networks to function. The first network operates between the system host processor and the field devices. The second network operates between the host processor, and administrative and monitoring terminals. This network also supports communication with other systems, such as the student or personnel systems. Although it is technically possible for these two networks to share the same medium, such as a campuswide Ethernet network, doing so presents serious data-security problems. Protecting systems from unauthorized access on the network of host/terminals is less of a problem than protecting the communication with field devices. The campus information-technology group, or an information-technology professional, should be consulted for assistance in setting up secure communications throughout the systems.

The process of establishing common card systems on college campuses should be directed by a single group with the support of senior administration. Campuses typically include many departments with strong views on their department's needs. All departments that currently use card-based systems should be consulted. The group responsible for software development of the student and personnel system databases should be involved directly, as well as the information-technology group. Careful initial planning can result in a system that can share a common card and one that requires low system file maintenance costs.

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