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SP&T News Security Integrator of the Year 2011: Contava

Most major projects start with an RFP. Projects are won (or lost) based on the quality of the response. In Contava’s case, the Calgary Transit project was definitely won based on the diligence and dedication they showed to it before a single camera was installed or wire run.

October 5, 2011  By  Neil Sutton

Edmonton-based integrator Contava won the 2011 SP&T Security Integrator of the Year competition, sponsored by Anixter Canada, based on an almost total security revamp of Calgary Transit’s light rail system.

Some of the pre-existing camera equipment dated back to the 1980s and was more operational in nature than security-minded, so an upgrade was becoming essential.

“We were looking to replace our CCTV system for our C Train system, which included everything from the back end software — the whole video management system — to the video wall to all of the communications network, the recording devices and the camera themselves,” explains Stephen Hansen, Calgary Transit safety and security manager.

“We went to market to replace the entire system, front to back — new network, new backbone, new control system and a new upgrade connection point to our SCADA systems,” adds Sean Bolli, who was security adviser, corporate security for Calgary Transit at the time and now works as the director of corporate security for Canadian Pacific.


What secured Contava’s place as the project integrator was the sheer volume and quality of the work the company did in response to the RFP. Bolli says the RFP didn’t provide too many specifics about the equipment required; it was more goal and result oriented. “We didn’t really specify what we wanted; we specified how we wanted it to perform,” says Bolli.

Colin Adderley, who submitted Contava’s nomination for the Integrator of the Year on their behalf, was project manager for the transit upgrade. He now works as customer support engineer for Vineyard Networks, in Kelowna, B.C.

“You could tell that (Contava) put a lot of work and thought into (the RFP). For example, you have to think through all the steps when you install a brand new IP network. You’re adding all these cameras and you’ve got to cut over a live operation. One of the things that really impressed us about Contava was they seemed like a fairly smart outfit right at the beginning of the RFP process,” he says.

Throughout the project, Contava produced more than a thousand pages of “pure technical thought,” according to Adderley. “They won the RFP fair and square. They put the work in; they provided by far the most intelligent, best response.”

The upgrade was long overdue, says Bolli, but delayed due to budget pressure. Smaller upgrades were done over the decades, but on a piecemeal basis. “As we moved from the 80s to the 90s and obviously into the new millennium, security took on a much larger role. But just due to money and funding and the kind of capital expenditure required to upgrade the system, it was really never done.”

The funding was found, partly due to input from the federal government, and a budget of slightly more than $6 million set aside for the project.

The project definitely presented a challenge, says David Sime, director of operations for Contava, and not just because the company was dealing with architecture dating back several decades. Calgary Transit wanted no disruption of service and the project to be completed in less than a year. More than 30 stations were affected, with more to come as new stations were being renovated or added to the rail system. The project required a distributed recording system, high definition cameras, a new video wall for the control room, an IP-based network, and integration to the SCADA system that controls the elevators. It also required that equipment meet federal privacy standards and, of course, provide staff and riders with a secure environment.

A 10-Gigabit Cisco IP network was installed, along with Dell blade servers, Panasonic megapixel cameras (10–20 megapixels), a Mitsubishi video wall and Genetec software to handle distributed archiving (an archiver at every station) and fail-over archiving to a central data centre.

The SCADA system was integrated such that when a person pushes the button to call an elevator, the signal is routed back to a control centre operator who is able to control the elevator and view video from the closest camera. SCADA integration was achieved using customized Genetec software.

“They replaced all of the infrastructure in the stations,” says Hansen. “They installed all of the recording devices, the network switches in our comm rooms. They replaced all the cameras in the stations, and they did that while we were still running service. The key piece for us is that we wanted to maintain our ability to provide service to customers while this work was being done. They did all the replacement of the back end systems. In the video monitoring centre, they replaced the video wall. They did a backup in our IT data centre so we would have a backup in the event there was a failure.”

Calgary Transit wanted to be thorough in its approach to the upgrade. There were analogue cameras in place that were installed only a few years ago, but they too were replaced. “We totally replaced everything,” says Bolli. “We just wanted a good, consistent platform. We didn’t want to deal with issues that come up when you’ve got a myriad of different cameras.”

The old video wall was “pretty nasty,” adds Bolli, with 1980s-style CRT monitors on the wall. The entire wall was replaced with 51-inch seamless LED screens.

Contava has worked on large projects before, says Sime, but nothing as large as Calgary Transit given the tight timeframe. “We did a very good job on this project,” says Sime. “It is definitely worth every hour you invest to mitigate any problems down the way.”

The SP&T News advisory board, who selected Contava from among the other Integrator of the Year candidates, was impressed with the complexity of the project, particularly given the time frame and the challenges presented by working on a mass transit system that continues to operate while the work is being done.

“I’ve never been involved with a project or challenge like that,” says Joe McCann, owner of Bulldog Fire & Security, the Kitchener, Ont.-based integrator that won the SP&T Integrator of the Year award in 2009 for a project that was completed for Sleeman Brewery. “I’m trying to imagine the impact on the environment as well as the ability to work certain hours in high traffic and those sorts of issues. It would be quite a challenge.”

Sime says Contava had to think on its feet and look at problems in whole new ways in order to arrive at workable solutions. Multicasting video with multiple cameras puts significant stressors on an IP network. “When we did that, we exposed some issues with the underlying architecture. We had to manipulate the design — how we were managing those video streams — to a new configuration. We were not sure that it would be successful to deploy in that manner. That (experience) was novel. It had always been done another way; now we do it this way. We’ve found successes in other environments because of that,” he says.

Adversity has made the company stronger, says Sime. In the course of working on the Calgary project, Contava had to hire new people with diverse backgrounds — particularly those that emphasize IT and telecom experience. The company found that their skills could effectively be applied to a security environment, creating a workforce that could handle a variety of challenges.

“We definitely stretched ourselves. Our engineering and design processes have definitely improved. We’ve learned a lot from that. We’ve also developed people that will be an asset to any future project like this,” he says. “Now we’ve got these very well rounded technical resources — engineers and system analysts and project managers — that can take their knowledge here and apply it to any sized security system.”

The City of Calgary is pleased with the work Contava was able to achieve, says Hansen. They were able to go above and beyond requirements, arrive at innovative solutions, train all the necessary Calgary personnel and build a network that can handle additional traffic should more cameras be added in future years.

Sime said the work “stressed everybody to the max,” but stress and deadlines can often provide clarity and focus to almost any undertaking. He also acknowledges that Contava received the support of the City of Calgary every step of the way. “Without that support, we would not have been successful.”

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