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Real-time middleware provides glue for integrating nuclear detection and communication systems

By Karen Ferrick-Roman and Adrian Courtenay

Forget the idea of “out with the old and in with the new.” New radiation detection systems that deter, detect and interdict illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials need to work with communications systems already in place.

To achieve this goal, cutting-edge security operations need to integrate new equipment with legacy systems, said Todd Davis, technology director of Schneider Electric, and real-time middleware is the best way to achieve that goal.

Davis addressed this issue at the Port Security Operations Conference & Expo on March 17-19 in Cape Canaveral, Fla., hosted by the MacDonnell Group, as industry leaders, military and Homeland Security officials, and supply chain partners gathered to share insights.

A Certified Information Systems Management Solution Manager working in process control, Davis discussed lessons learned in integrating systems worldwide and provided a framework and rationale for others to integrate the old with the new – especially as far as nuclear detection is concerned. Since the fall of the former Soviet Union about 15 years ago, security detection companies such as Schneider have been working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration to assure that materials that might be used to make “dirty” bombs capable of sickening many people or that might create a fissile weapon to start a nuclear chain reaction are handled correctly and used for their intended beneficial power and medical purposes.

To integrate nuclear detection and deterrence systems, he said, also requires thinking systematically. For instance, a nuclear detection system may need to work with any variety of security systems, from cameras tracking on- and off-loading in ports to nonintrusive X-ray machines, traffic lights and gate controls that manage traffic flow. “It depends on the complexity and sophistication of the port,” Davis noted.

A successful integration incorporates all of these pieces systemically, Davis said. Lessons learned show that starting with one or two server operations isn’t the best tactic. “As you add components, you get spaghetti code,” Davis said. “It becomes very unwieldy.”

Instead, he suggested incorporating middleware architecture and real-time – not transaction-based – technology. Real-time technology, unlike the workings of the financial world’s ATM machines, provides a dedicated connector to pass data between applications. For instance, transcation-based middleware, like those used in the financial world, will guarantee that a deposit is reflected in a bank account. The guarantee does not include recognizing that deposit immediately, Davis explained.

“Real time implies reaction of less than one second,” he said. “Any alarm-based safety or alert system needs to be in real time, so when you’re dealing with a real-time system, you also need real-time middleware architecture.”

Real-time middleware becomes the basis for leveraging the investment in the existing system and making operations smooth. In fact, Davis called the real-time abilities, plus the ability to support multiple protocols, “the glue for integration.”

This technical challenge must be met when incorporating not only legacy and new systems, but when integrating disparate systems that work in very different environments. Davis gave the example of incorporating systems in the Dominican Republic, Sri Lanka and Argentina or dovetailing multiple systems, whether they are telecom, fiber VoIP or backup power, all possibly manufactured by different vendors.

Any integration project of this scope will come with unknown challenges, such as overlap among various authorities in charge of the port project and having different agencies provide components for the project, he advised.

The danger of system failure can be hazardous both to safety and profits. The average cost of 24 hours of downtime, Davis said, reaches a loss of $6.4 million. In some industries, $6.4 million could be lost in only one hour of downtime.

Importantly, providers should be aware that the reach of a reliable, integrated system extends to other organizations, costs and schedules, besides the direct stakeholders, Davis said. In a successful integration project, clients have faith in the reliability of critical systems and have the benefit of a system that is flexibility enough to meet their needs, yet consistent in its operations.

Achieving this technical accomplishment does not mean the provider’s work is done, Going forward, the often underappreciated support and maintenance responsibilities become core components for a successful operation. Plus, Davis pointed out; support must be delivered for customers, not only for the products.

“It’s a service that needs to continue,” Davis said. “It impacts the proper national tracking of nuclear materials; we want to know where they are and how they are being used.”

Initiating integration requires planning before even thinking of the most technical aspects of integrating systems. Davis suggested:

  • Identifying stakeholders, receiving input and buy-in
  • Evaluating existing systems, including hardware, software and how operations are conducted
  • Developing documents detailing the existing systems and how the radiation detection portion will be integrated
  • Developing and receiving approval of documents, designs, procedures and processes for the integration
  • Providing testing and operational readiness review
  • Providing customer training and operational turnover to the customer
  • Maintaining support and sustainability.

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