Windows; Remains Open for OS Challengers
In the beginning, there was Xerox. Xerox created the first practical graphical user interface (GUI) for computer operating systems. One day, a man named Steve Jobs was touring Xerox P.A.R.C. (Palo Alto Research Center in California), observed this GUI invention and thought it was pretty cool. After taking several Xerox P.A.R.C. employees for himself, he developed an improved GUI, and a personal computer (PC) to run it on.
Another man named Bill Gates observed what Steve Jobs was doing and thought it was pretty cool, too. He took that GUI concept and focused on developing the software end of it, allowing anyone to run it on generic hardware. Then Linus Torvalds decided he could do it differently, and free, and threw a wrench into everyone’s works. Thus, here we are today.
Before the E-mails start to flow, I understand this is an extremely abridged version of the history of the GUI-based operating system (OS). But it does illustrate the state of affairs we are in now. As our security devices become more and more intelligent, the software used to run them must also evolve, and we as integrators must understand the benefits and differences of each one.
Is It the Full or Embedded OS?
Before we branch out into the actual OSs that we will encounter, let’s get familiar with how they are used.
There are two basic ways to put an OS onto a device like a DVR. The first is to make the device a full PC-based product, using a full version of a commercial OS like Microsoft® Windows™. This basically creates a PC with some special hardware for doing video capture, storage, searches, retrieval, etc.
Traditionally, devices running full OS versions have provided the largest amount of function and flexibility, as seen in the early days of PC-based DVRs. The OS offered a large existing programming base, as well as a certain level of robustness. Unfortunately, when you use a full version of an OS on a device, you also bring along the problems associated with that OS. You have to take the good with the bad. This meant that since the first boxes were mostly based on Windows, you had to deal with viruses and hackers.
We weren’t used to this in the security industry. When was the last time your multiplexer was brought down by a virus? How many times was your matrix switcher hacked into?
The industry had to make the new digital devices as stable, robust and safe as traditional analog systems. Along came embedded systems.
Basically, an embedded system uses just a part of a commercially available OS, or a proprietary run-time OS (also called a RTOS or real-time operating system) that has exactly what it needs to do the job it is called to do, and nothing else. It is lean, mean and pretty isolated from the outside world. An embedded OS or RTOS can also be developed in-house, lowering manufacturing costs.
Embedded OSs are generally not subject to viruses, spyware, etc. However, any OS can be hacked if someone really wants to. We’ll look at securing your system in another column.
So now that we understand how we might use these OSs, let’s take a look at the ones we are most likely to run into.
Big ‘Apple’ Has Small Bite of Market
OK, so Apple Computer’s™ OSX operating system isn’t commonly found in security devices, but I’m a big Apple fanboy, and now that the company is using Intel™ processors and can run Windows natively, who knows? I’m always hopeful. I have heard reports that some DVR manufacturers have developed Mac™-based clients for specific projects. Many systems now use the H.264 video encoding standard, which was heavily promoted and partially developed by Apple, and is now the default standard for Quicktime™.
If you run into a request for a Mac video client, it will quite often be from school districts or other educational customers. If so, there is hope in the short term. More and more networked video systems are providing Web interfaces, which should fill the need until more Mac clients appear. Like I said, a guy can hope, can’t he?
Keeping ‘Windows’ Patched Up
Of course, the one that most of us are familiar with is MS Windows. This is the OS that you will find on the majority of PCs, obviously, but also on a large number of digital video products.
As mentioned in the little history lesson above, Microsoft did not invent the windowed operating system, but of course, neither did Apple. What Microsoft did that made it the most common OS in the world today was to make it useable on all sorts of hardware. Apple, on the other hand, wanted to control the quality of the user experience, so it tailored the hardware to “just work” with the software (except for the cloning experiments of the mid to late 1990s, which is still too painful for some of us to go into).
Whatever the reason, you will deal with Windows 95 percent of the time you sell a digital system. It is important to understand the implementations and limitations you will experience.
Like other OSs, Windows can either be used as a full version, or as an embedded version (as in some mobile devices). Either way, it will provide the user a comfortable, familiar experience most of the time. Depending on the developer of the DVR software, it could also provide an easy interface for programming.
Keep this in mind: as explained earlier, any digital system based on Windows is susceptible to the same problems as any PC running Windows. If this system has a connection to the Internet, steps must be taken to protect and isolate it from the outside.
These devices must also be patched on a regular basis, according to Microsoft’s schedule of bug fix releases. This, however, brings up another problem. The DVR or network video recorder (NVR) software on the box was developed for a certain version of Windows at a certain period of time, with certain patches available. Caution must be taken when patching a client’s DVR, as some patches and fixes could break the proprietary software. Contact the device manufacturer before you attempt to patch or upgrade any digital video hardware.
Crossing Over to Linux™
So, the industry has issues with using Windows, Macs don’t have enough market share to justify committing resources to, and costs need to be reduced. Where do we turn? Along came Linux™. Linux-based devices are becoming more and more prevalent and are leading the charge for low-cost digital systems. Linux is another OS like Windows, OSX, etc. It is generally more difficult to configure and use if you are going to be using it from scratch, but for embedded digital devices, it is darn close to perfect.
One big benefit to Linux is its modular nature. It is based on the Unix operating system, which has been around for many, many years. The developers of Linux took the core, or kernel, of Unix and created a new OS around it. This led to many different “flavors,” or distributions of Linux. You may have heard names like Mandriva, Red Hat, Knoppix, etc. These are all based on that same kernel, but offer customized versions of Linux that fit exactly what you need.
The biggest benefit of Linux (in my opinion) that DVR manufacturers zeroed in on is the fact that it’s free. Using what is called the open source model, Linux developers freely distribute their creations on the Internet. What more could a manufacturer hope for? Here’s a fully customi
zable OS, and by the way, did we mention it’s free?
A very large percentage of the offshore, import DVR market is based on Linux. It is relatively simple for a manufacturer to pick out just the parts of Linux that are relevant to their product, and leave out anything else that just takes up space or CPU power. We will continue to see an increase in Linux-based devices for some time to come.
Ultimate Responsibility Is Yours
No matter what OS is on your device, it is up to you as the integrator to provide a safe, clean environment for it to operate. You need to know how vulnerable your system is to attack, viruses, etc., and plan your network protection accordingly.
As far as ease of use, most manufacturers will hide the OS from the users, instead just presenting you with their own software. It is up to you, though to have a working knowledge of all these systems in case you need to dig deeper for troubleshooting and repair. As always, knowledge is power.
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