Avoiding the Forklift Upgrade

One of the concerns I have heard from end users and systems integrators alike is, “I just bought this system two years ago. Do I really have to throw everything out to get into networked video?” This seems to be a very common idea; analog is gone, digital is here, and never the two shall meet. 

Like everything else in life, there must be balance. Is convergence an all-or-nothing affair? My opinion is no, depending on the application, of course. This time around, I want to look at some of the ways we can truly converge analog and digital, without throwing existing investments out with the bathwater.

IP Cameras Are Not Perfect
If you have attended any recent security trade show, you know IP cameras have been the “big thing” for the past year or so. Being able to plug a network cable right into the back of the camera seems to be a miracle cure for everything, if you listen to the growing throng of manufacturers in the IP arena. There are many benefits to a decentralized IP system, not the least of which is infrastructure and labor savings. 

But what are the drawbacks? Is there anything that makes my existing analog camera installation base appealing and worth keeping? I would say there are two major reasons for sticking with and leveraging an existing system. 

The first is bandwidth. I know this column is supposed to preach the gospel of network convergence, but it is still a very real issue that most people’s networks can’t support large amounts of video traffic, or advanced protocols like multicasting. If you walk in to a customer with a bunch of IP cameras, that little $30 computer store switch is going to run screaming from the room. 

Video requires not only sufficient room on each individual port, but it also (and sometimes more importantly) requires a switch backplane that can process the extremely high, constant throughput of multiple streams. 

Another reason to consider keeping what you have is the breadth of features available on analog vs. IP cameras. While this is changing, it is still the case that traditional cameras have a much broader feature set and more choices available. Your existing cameras were picked for a reason, and there may or may not be a comparable choice yet in an IP version.

So, what can we do to leverage the existing hardware on the side of my building? We’ll discuss head-end and recording options next, but one option for bringing the system into the 21st century is through the use of encoders, or video servers. 

A video server basically takes the analog video, captures and compresses it, and drops it onto the network for use somewhere else. Companies on both sides of the Convergence Wave now offer video servers, from Webcam providers to traditional security manufacturers. 

Most video servers offer two ways to manage the video: import to a DVR/ NVR, or view via Web browser. This is one area to be careful of when designing the network to run video servers. In some cases, multiple streams have to be accounted for, which means more traffic on the network. 

The big benefit of video servers/encoders is that you can leverage a large part of the existing system. Most, if not all, of the cameras can be dropped onto the network with the same functionality as IP devices. 

Multistream encoders offer the additional benefit of Web browser viewing of any or all of the cameras on a system, depending on the capabilities of the encoder. One stream will generally be sent directly to an NVR or hybrid DVR for recording, and any others will be available for live viewing directly from the encoder itself. This offers a great deal of flexibility for those users who want to be able to view some cameras from the comfort of home.

Hybrid Devices Offer Migration Path
So we have the option of keeping our existing cameras, possibly saving time and money, but what can we do at the head-end to leverage what we have as well?

Until recently, digital recording devices were grouped into two categories: NVR or DVR. Both of these have their application and usefulness in the industry. During the past couple of years, however, a new player has appeared: the hybrid. 

Generally, if you had a new or existing installation with cameras all coming back on coax to a single home-run point, you would make the choice of a DVR. This was the only way to go for older systems where analog VCRs were being replaced. The DVR itself generally had IP connectivity, so that would be the bridge onto the network. 

With the advent of IP cameras and video servers, however, video security systems were starting to take on the topologies of a computer network. This necessitated a migration from the home-run type layout to a more distributed approach. Instead of pulling coax all the way across a building, in addition to any other cable plant that might have been available, we were now able to add a network drop close to any camera location, and take that back to the nearest IDF closet. In some cases, all the cable needed for an installation may have already existed, making the job that much easier.

This is where the NVR stepped in. Most NVRs had no BNC connections on the back, as they pulled all their streams right off the network. This is the step that has really brought the convergence wave to the forefront of our industry. This was the point where a certain level of proficiency was needed, as it was no longer just punching the way through a DSL firewall to allow outside access, but now whole networks needed to support the increased load of video.

What happens, however, when you have both circumstances? You have a large number of analog cameras all coming back to a matrix switch or other home-run device, and the customer wants to begin the migration to a fully distributed network system. 

This is where the hybrid comes in, with lots of new options. A hybrid is basically an NVR/DVR combo, allowing both physical camera connections on the back, as well as a number of IP streams from the network. Hybrid recorders are usually sold in licensed bundles, with certain numbers of IP or analog inputs allowed. The hybrid is a great option when rack space is a consideration (being able to add more streams off the network, not more physical inputs) and where there is a considerable existing system to be integrated. 

Another great option starting to emerge big time in the marketplace is the software-only system. These recording systems basically just provide software that can be installed on any server/storage combo that you put together. A product such as this makes great sense if you have a customer who has existing hardware agreements with a PC vendor or manufacturer, and may be able to get the server or storage software at great discounts.

Take It One Phase at a Time
With all the options now in our rapidly expanding marketplace, there is no reason to tell an end user they have to scrap everything they have if they want to go digital. There may be other reasons to do so, such as antiquated or low-quality equipment, but just wanting to hop onto the network is no longer a reason to trash the whole ball of wax. 

A more reasonable stance is a phased-in approach, where maybe the head-end is upgraded first, then as older cameras expire, they are replaced with IP cameras, and others can be moved to video servers/encoders. 

Take the time to examine the best path for your client. Knowing that you have their long-term goals in mind and are conscious of money they’ve already spent will contribute to that all-important trusting relationship for which we all strive. 

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