Software Vs. Hardware Recording

A lot of you might be familiar with the story of Apple Computer vs. Microsoft. Without going into the whole history, the main component of the debate is that Microsoft developed a software platform that can be used on any PC hardware, while Apple decided to engineer its own hardware to match the performance of its software, and bundled them together.

Funny enough, we have a very similar situation in our industry today.

There are as many ways to record IP cameras in the security market as there are IP cameras. And those recording solutions basically break down into two overly simplified categories: software vs. hardware. Let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of both.

The Hardware Game

It’s no secret that the traditional security industry is a hardware-based market. It has been for years. Whether it is the VCR, matrix switcher, multiplexer or DVR, our systems have been based in the box realm, the world of the hardware device.

It makes sense then, that we remain comfortable with a hardware solution, even as we move into the virtual world of IP. This comfort level is evident in the fact that most of the large security providers have extensive hardware-centric recording offerings. Whether it’s Bosch, Pelco or GE, the major players in the security market still have the bulk of their eggs in the hardware basket.

One of leading arguments in favor of a hardware-based solution is “one throat to choke.” This sales pitch basically   says that if you buy the PC hardware from one person and the software from someone else and the IP cameras from yet another manufacturer, what happens when something goes wrong? While this is a valid point, there are two sides to every story. Another argument used to assert the superiority of the hardware-based recorder is that in a bundled solution, the hardware has specifically been engineered to support the performance requirements of the software (remember Apple?).

“By offering the solution as a bundled pre-tested package, you are simply removing variability and lowering risk,” says Dr. Bob Banerjee, product marketing manager for Bosch IP video systems. “Even with clearly documented system requirements for pure software, a customer can easily end up using hardware that has a driver missing, inadequate graphics card or memory, or some hang-over from previously installed software.”

By packaging a specifically engineered hardware device with software, a manufacturer is able to guarantee a certain level of performance, especially since the customer isn’t generally able to make significant changes to that hardware. Another item that makes bundled hardware somewhat appealing is the flexibility of configuration. Hardware solutions lend themselves to being hybrid solutions quite easily; software-only packages are primarily for IP camera-only projects. This can be a great benefit in a situation involving a migration path.

A Softer Solution

So what about the software-based recording solution? These are often referred to as video management solutions and are only sold as software packages. The customer, or integrator, provides an off-the-shelf server or PC hardware and a third-party storage array. Some popular names in the software recording industry are OnSSI, Milestone and Pelco’s Digital Sentry software package. So-called “software-only” packages are gaining rapidly in popularity, mostly due to the influence of IT staff being more involved in the decision-making process in converged businesses.

Much like the hardware solution, there are several benefits to a software-only package. A big one is due to that same IT influence. Many large companies have existing contracts with PC and server hardware manufacturers. They are able to buy this hardware at much lower costs than other people, mostly because of volume discounts.

These guys speak the language of virtualization and blade servers. It’s a bit difficult to try and sell them on a “purpose-built” hardware device that could cost them a great deal more than they can buy hardware for, and may not even be at equal spec with what they have access to. The software-only solution, in their eyes, makes ultimate sense.

Another way the software solution has made inroads is with the “open standards” argument. Most of these software packages accept large numbers of third-party IP cameras and, as already mentioned, take advantage of third-party storage systems.

“The benefits of a software-only VMS solution, on a nonproprietary, open architecture platform, are significant,” says Jeff Knapp, vice president of marketing for OnSSI. He adds that it is the lack of proprietary hardware as well as the open integration possibilities that make his company’s offerings appealing. “Oftentimes we will facilitate integration with existing third-party applications in the enterprise, both physical security related, i.e. access control, as well as other applications across the enterprise, i.e. POS, maintenance, marketing, etc.,” he says. 

So Which One?

When it really comes down to it, the application drives the product. If you have an existing analog installation, and the customer doesn’t really want to yank it all out and start over, then a hardware bundle may be the way to go, leveraging as much of the existing system as possible. If, on the other hand, you have a customer that is a very progressive company, with experienced IT staff, a strong network and is looking at a new system, then the software-based solution makes sense.

MCSE- and CCNA-certified Steve Payne has 15 years of industry experience, presently serving as a network/security system sales engineer and trainer for Warren Associates. He can be reached at [email protected].


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