What Goes Around Comes Around in Real Time

March, 2004

Joe Wenzl

With the ever-increasing speed and efficiencies being realized with today's technology, it has become feasible to envision and realize a true enterprise-wide parking and access control system.
The traditional method of data exchange between a remote parking facility and its central accounting and control office is still often used -- file transfer at the end of the day. This is an effective method to analyze revenue information, audit transient and contract patronage, determine rate adjustments to maximize revenue, create valid contract parker lists, and feed back this data to the respective parking facilities.
Given today's technology, it is feasible for this data interchange to be communicated to the central office in real time, with relatively fast reactive feedback to the remote parking facility -- what goes around comes around in real time.
Most lane equipment supplied today contains an integrated microprocessor-based controller or PC capable of handling a myriad of functions including lane control, user interface, fee computation and communications. The lanes themselves are becoming increasingly complex, though the complexity is being made transparent to the patron. Automated devices such as in-booth automatic cashiering terminals, pay-in-lane systems and automatic pay stations interchange data with the host or even a credit card clearing house once or several times during the transaction with speed and efficiency.
Methods of communication have improved, where Ethernet or other high-speed media whisk data packets to their intended destinations. Existing network infrastructures are leveraged, to the point where multiple packet types are multiplexed through the same physical connection (e.g., device communication, audio, video, etc.). Servers continue to become more powerful and less expensive. Remote connection into the server and/or its network is increasingly secure with higher levels of security through hardware- and software-based firewalls.
The available technology today is setting the stage for tomorrow's enterprise system.
At the high end of the automation spectrum are host applications that conceivably could be located within a parking facility, in regional areas covering multiple parking facilities or at a single central control point managing all associated parking facilities. Applications of this type typically are designed to run on high-end, multiple-processor minicomputers. Multiple "instances" of the facility-management application may be run simultaneously on a combination of servers that are load-balanced to handle the varying data traffic.
Newer database technology, from companies such as Oracle and Veritas, allow multiple instances of the database management system to be viewed by the individual parking facilities as a single, virtual cluster. This effectively creates a single database from which the central office may base its management decision-making. Given that this system provides a high degree of availability, a real-time pathway exists from the lane device up through the host computer and back down to the lane device.
More conventional host applications are designed to run as a single "instance" within the parking enterprise system. Each of these applications creates and manages its own database, so all data from the facility's lane equipment are stored and associated with the local database. To create the "what goes around comes around in real time" enterprise, the technical capabilities of the lane equipment could conceivably be leveraged to play more of a role in getting data back-to and back-from the enterprise's central control site.
As mentioned previously, the potential for high-speed connectivity exists between the lane and facility host. An enterprise layer could function in much the same way as the facility host layer, polling each facility for current status messages. Depending on the availability and speed between each of the layers, the control of the system could be distributed across all layers, made centric about one individual layer, or somewhere in-between.
A third method of achieving the real-time enterprise model would be to create a virtual network with direct connection to the individual lane device. Embedded Web servers that operate on conventional real-time operating systems (RTOS) could provide a direct IP Internet connection to both a local facility host and a central enterprise system.
Given the appropriate security measures and firewalls, a single lane device could be addressable via the Internet from any location. The devices themselves could be made smart enough to sense faults or anomalies and automatically download the latest version of their firmware. But ... that's another story.
Real-time enterprise solutions are no longer a vision for the future but the reality of today. Using available technology, creating fast and efficient system connectivity, and leveraging the power and speed of today's sophisticated lane devices make up the recipe for creating "what goes around comes around in real time."

Joe Wenzl is Director of Product and Market Development at Federal APD. He can be reached at jwenzl@federalapd.com.