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Access Control Hardware: An Essential Guide

August 28, 2023

Too busy to read? Here’s a summary:

  • Access control systems manage and regulate access to different areas of a building. Access control systems are made of several hardware components that work in harmony for secure, automated entry management.
  • Most credential readers at access points authenticate identifying data on credentials before transmitting it to a central control panel to be cross-checked against site authorizations. If there’s a match, the control panel will send a signal to electronically unlock the access point.

In this guide, we're going to dive deep into the world of access control hardware—the physical components that make reliable and secure entry management possible.


Let's break down the core hardware components of a typical access control system, beginning with credentials.

From the sophisticated world of biometrics and Bluetooth to traditional RFID cards and PIN codes, the presentation of an authentic credential is the first step to gaining entry through an access point.

  • Key Cards and Fobs: These credentials transmit their identifying data to card readers, usually by way of RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) signal technology.
  • Smartphone Credentials: Smartphones with Bluetooth or NFC signal technology-enabled are more secure than traditional cards and fobs because they can’t be cloned.
  • Biometric Credentials: These credentials include fingerprints, iris patterns, and faces. Biometric credentials are nearly impossible to clone and usually require scanners (to identify fingerprints and irises) or facial recognition software (to identify faces).
  • Knowledge Credentials: While a user’s memory of their PIN or passcode isn’t technically “hardware,” we’ve included it in this category because many access control systems require the input of memorized codes on keypads before unlocking.

Credential Readers

Credential readers at access points serve as frontline interfaces for entry management. A user must present their credential to a reader for authentication.

The three main types of credential readers for access control are keypads, card readers, and biometric scanners.


  • Membrane Keypads: These readers are ideal for outdoor settings due to their weather-resistant properties.
  • Mechanical Keypads: These keypads are known for durability and tactile feedback and have physical buttons that users must press to input PINs and passcodes.
  • Touchscreen Keypads: These keypads use touch-sensitive touchscreens instead of physical buttons.

Card Readers

  • Proximity Card Readers: These readers are for contactless ID cards, fobs, and smartphones with enabled Bluetooth or NFC signals. Credential holders only need to be within range of a proximity card reader to transmit data.
  • Smart Card Readers: These readers are similar to proximity card readers, but smart cards are more secure and have larger memories than proximity cards.
  • Magnetic Stripe Card Readers: These readers require swiping to access the identifying data stored on a card’s magnetic stripe.

Biometric Scanners

Biometric readers authenticate fingerprints, iris patterns, or faces to verify a user's identity.

Fingerprint Scanners

Fingerprint scanners employ advanced sensors to capture detailed, digital representations of fingerprints, including unique ridge patterns and minutiae points.

Sophisticated algorithms then compare captured fingerprint data to pre-stored fingerprint patterns.

Iris Scanners

Iris scanners ID individuals by capturing unique iris patterns and comparing them to irises in the system’s database.

Iris scanners use infrared light to illuminate the eye and enhance distinct iris features. Advanced algorithms then compare scanned irises to those in its database.

Facial Recognition Software

Facial recognition scanners harness the power of machine learning and advanced image processing algorithms to break down facial features into complex geometric patterns and focus on key points of interest, such as the distance between eyes or the shape of cheekbones. The resulting data is then compared to stored facial patterns.

Access Control Panels

Credential readers transmit data from authenticated credentials to access control panels, which are also known as “controllers.”

Access control panels are the brains of the operation, the central units that log access data and make decisions regarding access privileges.

They cross-check identifying data transmitted from credential readers against preset access authorizations at the door where they’re presented. If there’s a match, the panel will transmit an electronic signal to unlock the access point temporarily.

While most access control systems with multiple doors require a central, networked control panel, those systems designed to manage a single entrance can often operate using standalone controllers, which operate independently.

Electronic Locks

Access control panels manage security hardware at each door, including electronic locks.

Electronic locks prevent unauthorized access by only unlocking when access is approved by the system control panel (or when administrators use buzzers and other tools to grant entry).

Three main kinds of locks are used in access control systems: magnetic locks, electric strike locks, and electromechanical locks.

  • Electric strike locks allow for remote control of door locks and are often used with a buzzer or intercom system.
  • Magnetic locks are simple and strong, but they require constant power to stay locked. In other words, they can be a problem during power outages if backup generators aren’t available.
  • Electromechanical locks are versatile and can be configured to stay either locked or unlocked during power outages.

Exit Devices

Access control systems can be configured to meet most security and privacy regulations by logging all access data and requiring a second round of credential authentication before users are able to exit secured areas.

That said, in environments where logging exit data isn’t necessary, push-to-exit buttons and similar hardware can be installed at exit points (instead of proper credential readers).

Exit devices are commonly installed at exit points when exit data isn’t necessary. Exit devices improve workplace efficiency and are usually much less expensive than credential readers, which is why they are often preferred on the exiting side of a secured door.

Mammoth Security and Access Control Hardware

Our team at Mammoth Security knows how to select, install, and customize an access control system that’s tailored to your site’s unique layout, workflow patterns, and security concerns, as well as any industry-specific regulations that may be relevant to you.

To schedule a 100% FREE, zero-obligation site survey and consultation with a friendly expert from our team, just fill out the simple blue form below.




Access control hardware refers to the physical components used in access control systems to manage and control who has access to different areas of a building. This includes card readers, keypads, biometric scanners, electronic locks, door controllers, identification media, exit devices, and access control panels.

Access control hardware works by coordinating inputs and outputs from different devices to authenticate identities and manage access to controlled areas. The system allows or denies entry through an electronic locking system.

Access control readers come in various forms, including proximity card readers, smart card readers, and biometric scanners like fingerprint, facial recognition, and iris scanners.

Access control systems are extremely secure when properly configured and maintained. Advanced systems use encrypted communication, biometric identification, and anti-tampering features to provide high-level security.

In access control systems, a biometric scanner is a device that uses unique biological characteristics, such as fingerprints, facial patterns, or iris patterns, to identify individuals.

Electronic locks in access control systems control access to a door or gate. They only unlock for authorized users or when access is remotely granted by an appropriate administrator.

Access control panels are often considered the brains of an access control system. They coordinate inputs and outputs for all linked access control hardware and decide whether to grant or deny access based on matches between presented credentials and preset site authorizations.

Identification media refers to the means through which a user's identity is verified in an access control system. Identification media are also known as access control credentials. They include key cards, fobs, biometric data, and smartphones with NFC or Bluetooth enabled.



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