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[Understandable] Introduction to Access Control Systems

Getting started with access control can be overwhelming at first. So many technical terms and things to wrap your head around. But understanding access control systems is really an achievable goal - especially after reading this post. This is really a 101 crash course guide for access control systems. If you want to get a (relatively) quick idea of how access control works, you’ve come to the right place. 

Learn about the basics of access control with our PFD guide → Free download here

If you are new to the world of physical access control, you might be looking for some basics like:

access control parts
Components: What are the pieces of an access control system and how does it work?
why access control
Why: What are typical reasons why people choose access control?
Access Control Cost
Quote and Cost: What should I spend on an access control system and how does a sample quote look like?
install access control
Setup and Operation: How I set up an access control system so it's working and where do I start?

All of these questions will be addressed in this post including in-depth links which contain detailed information for further reading. We've compiled a list with the 30 best security magazines and publications so you can get some info as to what is going on in the security market.

Here we go:

Free vs. Security Consultant

When looking at ways to learn fast about security, most people call a local security integrator, installer or security consultant. However understanding some basic things about access control systems is basically free when searching online for some resources like this.

Is it absolutely needed that you learn about access control yourself? No, definitely not. However it will save you tons of time when you are into your project and people will start talking access control language that you will freak out about because they are already over their deadline and you don't know what is going on.

Access Control Systems Fundamentals

Many of us carry an access card or ID badge. That means your office uses an access system. But how does it really work? It's difficult since most people have never seen an access system. When initially wondering about the access control system, most people believe it is just a card reader on the wall.

In reality there is a little bit more to it of course. it’s not very difficult though, there are just a few parts behind the scenes at work that make the magic of opening a door happen. That is what this blogpost is about.

Reading this will give you a full and comprehensive understanding how access control systems work and the language needed to communicate about it with vendors. Of course we included many useful and in-depth resources as well.

What is an Access Control System?

Let’s keep this simple: An access control system allows you to manage, monitor and maintain who has access to for example your doors. The simplest form of "access control system" is a standard deadbolt with a brass key. 

simple access control
The simplest form of physical access control - a brass key

Since the introduction of the key some 4000 years ago, much more advanced systems have been introduced. Today there are different computer-based, electronic access control system types which we described in an earlier post.

Using an access control system allows you to manage access or entry to almost anything: file access, workstation access, printer access and in our case, door-, facility-, building- or office access. The standard form of today’s access control is an “access card” instead of the key to grant access to the secured area. In the case of access to larger buildings, the exterior door access is managed by the building while the interior door - or tenant door access is managed by the individual tenant company.

Why do we Need Access Control?

The purpose of access control is to provide quick, convenient access control for authorized persons, while at the same time, restricting access for unauthorized people.

Beyond the obvious there are more reasons why access control is playing a significant role in your organization:

  • Compliance: Some companies need to be compliant with health data regulations (HIPAA) or credit card data regulations (PCI) or even with cyber standards such as SOC2. Especially being able to pull compliance reports for access control can be a big request.
  • Experience: If you have a lot of visitors or clients coming in your space, you might be looking for a welcoming experience at the front door or front desk. Access control can not only help but make your space better!
  • IP / Data: Imagine you are working in a company with an expensive product or sensitive data. You definitely want to to control who is coming in your facility.

Basic Components of Access Control Systems

Access control systems vary widely in type and complexity. However, most card access control systems consist of at least the following basic components

User facing side of Access Control

The user facing side - often called “credentials” or something similar cryptic is really what you already know: Access credentials in form of access cards, ID badges or smartphone based mobile credentials. 

When presented at a card reader on the wall, it beeps and - hopefully you are permitted to access and the door unlocks. The user facing side is what you have on you that gets you the permission. The device on the wall reads your credential or permission. Here an example how that can look with a smartphone as access credential:


Here an overview of access control components on the user side:

- Credentials: This is your electronic “key” and what you have that gets you access. It could be access cards, ID badges, ID cards or smartphone based mobile app access. People can use it to gain access through the doors secured by access control systems. The form factor of access cards is the same as credit cards, so it fits in the wallet or purse. However demagnetization is very common with basic access control cards. The benefit of using credentials is that they are personalized, so any unlock event can be tracked back to the person associated with the credential.

- Card reader: Mounted on the wall the card reader electronically reads your credentials and sends the request to unlock the door with your user credentials to a server. Typically the type of cards used are proximity cards which require the card to be held in a 2” to 6” proximity to the reader as opposed to being inserted. Card readers are mounted outside of the perimeter (exterior non-secured wall) next to the door they should be unlocking. In addition to card readers, some access control systems provide the option of using keypads (PINS) or biometrics instead of cards or smartphones as credentials.  This is rather uncommon, since PINs can easily be passed on and biometrics are harder to manage.

Admin facing side of Access Control

The admin facing side is where your office administrator, head of security or IT manager sets the parameters of who is allowed to access under which circumstances. This involves a management dashboard (often in the cloud these days) and a way to provision access, e.g. a card programming device.

In more advanced systems the manual operations aspect can be automated - as an example the provisioning and de-provsioining (creating and deleting access) can be done automatically by connecting the access dashboard to your company directory of employees. When a new employee shows up in the system, a new access right is automatically provisioned via a directory like Google Apps, Microsoft Azure, SAML or Okta. 

Here is an example of Kisi's management dashboard:


- Management dashboard or portal where administrators can manage, maintain and control access for employees, visitors or staff

- API and integrations can be used to automate manual workflows and make operations less prone to errors

Access Control System Diagram

Access control infrastructure is to most people the most mysterious aspect of how access control systems work. Obviously there are electronic locks installed - but what most people don’t know: Those locks are all centrally wired to your IT room. This means: A power or signal cable runs from the lock through the walls into your IT room where the access control panel sits. The access control panel gives the lock the signal to unlock when it receives the request to do so by the card reader. There are different topologies (as people call it) but for the basic understanding of access control systems let’s just assume this described flow for now. 

For overview here is an overview of Kisi's topology (or wiring diagram) of a basic access control setup:

access control system wiring diagram
Wiring diagram access control system


Electronic locks are used to electrically unlock the door that it is installed on. Typically have a wire that supplies them with power. 

Some locks open when power is supplied (fail secure locks) and some locks lock when power is supplied (fail safe locks). The reason for those two types of locks is the following: In the event of fire some doors like your front door should open to comply with building and fire codes to allow people to exit the building facility at any time. Other doors like an IT room door are wired fail secure and should remain locked even during an emergency.

In terms of the electronic locks used, we see everything from electronic strikes, electromagnetic locks (mag locks), electric exit devices, electrified mortise door lock sets and many more. Based on your door type and construction, the integrator will specify the best lock to install.

Independent of the lock installed, they are typically wired back to the access control system panel.

Access Control Panel

The access control panel is not visible for most people in a facility since the access control panel (sometimes called "access control field panel" or "intelligent controller”) is installed in the IT room, electrical -, telephone- or communications closet (comms room). 

The reason why it is behind locked doors is because all locks are wired to the access control panel. When a valid card is presented at the card reader, the door access panel receives the request to unlock a specific relay which is connected to a specific door wire. 

When the relay triggers, the lock is being powered (in the case of fail secure locks) and the door unlocks. This is how the access control panel control the access activity for building doors. 

How many access control panels have to be provided depends on the number of doors each panel can control. Kisi’s access control panel, e.g. can control up to 4 doors. If there are more, they can be modularly added next to each other.

Access Control Server

Access control server - Every access control system needs a server where the permissions are stored in an access database. As such it acts as the center or “brain” of the access control system. It is really the server which makes the decision if the doors should unlock or not by matching the presented credential to the credentials authorized for this door. The server can be a local windows or linux server, a cloud server or even a decentralized server when credentials are stored in the door reader.The server also tracks and records activity and events regarding access and allows to pull reports of past data events for a given period of time.If a local hosted access control server computer is used, it is typically a dedicated machine that runs the access software on it. This is the reason why cloud based systems recently gained a lot of traction since multi-facility management can become complicated with local servers.

Low Voltage Cables

- Cables [] - Often overlooked but sometimes actually the most expensive part of an access control system when done wrong. When building out the space it is important that all the necessary cables are specified, so the general contractor knows what to do. If the cables are not planned in at this point, they need to be added later and someone will have to drill in that newly painted wall or run cables on top of your beautiful walls.

Now that we have an overview of the components of access control, let’s look at a simple access control system: 

A simple access control system quote example

To explain the concept of an access control system let’s say you have an office or building with two doors that are on opposite ends of the facility, like a front and back door

Currently in use are regular keys to unlock and lock the door. Management is looking to improve security and operations on this facility by implementing an access control system. Reasons for looking into access control systems because your company is growing and you’d like to have more control.

After taking a closer look at the doors that are security sensitive, also the IT room door came to mind since there are many security related devices and equipment installed. The door leading from the hallway to the IT room should be secured as well. 

A team member is typically tasked with researching different access control options and getting bids. The team member is researching a few local vendors to contact who supply and install access control. Typically they will stop by to take a look at your space and the doors to give you an accurate quote for the access control system. Here is a sample of how a one door access control system quote look like:

Free Access Control Quote
Sample access control quote for companies like Brivo or others including mobile access pass and cloud access control

You see the issue is that many installers pack a lot of information into the quote and not necessarily provide line items. There are many ways to understand vendor or installer quality and the quote certainly is one of them.

Anyways - going back to our example: The integration vendor conducts the site survey and determines that in this case there are three card readers needed. For the locks installation of two magnetic locks on the glass doors and one electric strike for the IT room door is suggested. To control those locks installation of an access control panel is recommended by the installer which connects the door locks to the internet.

Also included is the wiring to connect everything and set up the system, a license for maintenance and support which sometimes includes the hosting and a few accessories. Vendors sometimes include a trip charge or service call.

Because the company wants to manage access from remote, a cloud-based physical access control system is recommended. This allows logging on to a web based portal from any browser and - given the correct credentials are presented - to make changes to the access rights and share or revoke access from remote.

Again, the most important thing about quotes is that you get line items so you understand what is being done. If the access control installer lumps everything together in one sum like above they sometimes ballpark the numbers and don’t specify the brand of hardware they use - which is a really good way to understand the quality of a quote by the way.

It is of high importance to clarify at this point if the quote includes a Certificate of Insurance (COI) which you can ask your building management if you are required to have this for incoming vendors. This makes sure possible damages by a vendor up to a certain amount are covered.

Access Control System Installation, Setup and Operation

Once you found the access control system you like, what happens next? How does the system get installed in your space? Here is the answer:

Typically installers take a few days from confirmation of the order till actual installation because they need to order the parts needed for the installation. Once you have an actual installation date, you’ll find that the installer will do the following:

1. Run the cables: If you don’t run the cables you can’t connect anything, so it really makes sense to start with running the internet, power and signal cables first.

2. Install the locks: Depending on what type of door you have, the integrator will either install a magnetic lock, electric strike or electrified mortise lock. This might involve cutting into the door-frame which is why sometimes it makes sense to do first so the office workers are not annoyed in the middle of the day.

3. Install the access control panel in your IT room: If you have two doors, you will be able to live with one access control panel because most of them can handle multiple doors. The integrator might install a backup power supply or other additional security hardware depending on your building’s specifications.

4. Install the readers at the door: Mostly the just have to be screwed on the wall and connected to power. Some readers like the Kisi IP reader need internet connection and would have to be connected to the internet.

5. Setup and testing: If there is a server to set up, it’s typically done after everything is installed so the software can be configured and tested if all doors unlock correctly.

Using the Access Control System

Once you have the door access system set up - you might run through the following steps to roll out the access control to your organization:

1. Test the system with a few pilot candidates or coworkers: Try run through the process that you envision for every employee or visitor. Provision access for them, activate their access, hand over the access card or share access with them, then see if it works for them. If you roll out too quickly your process might have some smaller hick-ups and the more people you involve, the faster the problem multiplies.

2. Set up a door access schedule: When should some doors unlock, when should they be able to accessible in general and which types of access groups or individuals should be able to gain access. The door access schedule is sometimes a bit political: Are IT managers are allowed to access all doors? What about executives? Are they allowed in the office 24/7? It’s a good exercise to discuss this with your security, facilities and management team as these rules is what your entire access control strategy will be based on, i.e. it will determine what you actually want to control.

3. Set up the rules in your access control software and test if they work. Now under certain conditions you want the user not to be able to unlock the door and so on. Run through all possible scenarios. Pro tip: Many offices get broken into during vacation days. Some offices automatically unlock their doors during work days. If the work day is a public holiday, burglars know they might just be able to walk in.

4. Announce the roll-out: Send an email to everyone to announce the change in access control. People don’t like change - some might have an emotional bond to their physical key, so make sure to be ready for pushback and highlight why this makes your workplace safer and your company more secure in general. Everyone should be able to agree to this.

5. Onboard your team: Once the system is tested, announced and approved the fun part begins: The actual roll out. You can start provisioning access for your team. The most important to consider is that some people will have issues or problems getting access, so make sure to roll out on a day that is not the most critical - most people choose fridays so there is time to troubleshoot.

Now that your access control system is running you might want to make use of some more advanced features: 

  • Door Status Monitoring Feature
  • Automatic Unlock Feature
  • Reporting Feature

Check out Kisi's product pages for more advanced features: Kisi Access Reader, Kisi IP Control Panel, Kisi Cloud Access Dashboard, Kisi Mobile Credentials.

Sources & Read More

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Access Control Basics