Multimedia Platforms: Top Picks for Converged Networking

What should we be thinking of, when we think of a truly converged network? Answers.com defines the term converge as: “To tend toward or achieve union...” However, in the context of this article, we will define converged networking as:

The use of an IP network to transport non-text information (most often voice and/or video traffic) for purposes other than conventional data processing. Example: “She slapped the vendor sharply, shouting ‘NO, we won’t build another proprietary network! We’ll put that on our converged network!’”

Clearly, there is a lot more to converged networking than simple (or not so simple) definitions. Herewith, we three consultants have collaborated (and competed) to inform you and state our views on emerging technologies that can share your IP network infrastructure and enhance operational effectiveness on your campus. These unknown (or at least vastly underappreciated) converged network technologies can provide a more efficient means of accomplishing day-to-day chores or, in some cases, offer completely new capabilities.

Wendy’s Picks

As far as I’m concerned, it’s now all about IP-enabled informatics, building automation systems (BAS), and speakers.

Informatics. In this case, we’ll limit the definition of informatics to systems designed to help monitor and alert you to possible concerns in rooms that require specific environmental conditions and perhaps some additional security. In years past, this may have been possible via your environmental control system using attached sensors for humidity, temperature, and the like. Today, there are appliances specifically designed for this purpose. These often come with both temperature and humidity sensors built in, with options for remote, wet-floor sensors and for video cameras, with or without motion sensing. The cameras can be set up to trigger when a door is opened. You can place these items wherever you need them (as long as you can get Ethernet and power to the location), allowing your network, security, and/or building engineering staff to routinely monitor conditions and be alerted when pre-set thresholds are reached. The systems can send alerts to a network management application, or page to designated phone numbers (though, in this case, you’d miss out on the video feed if you selected that option). One example is NetBotz (www.netbotz.com; see the case studies under the Industry Solutions/Education tab), which offers many options. Costs start at $900 for a single camera-less device, or you can reach tens of thousands of individuals if you select a centralized system with hundreds of NetBotz devices.

Building automation systems. Next on my list are IP-enabled building automation systems (BAS), aka building control systems. While many proprietary systems are available based on two previous ad hoc standards, this industry is moving (albeit rather cautiously) toward using IP as its base transport. OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards; www.oasis-open.org) is making headway in promoting the Open Building Information Exchange (oBIX) set of protocols, based primarily on XML. You can now obtain individual building control components that can be placed directly on an IP network. Examples include actuators (to turn a valve on and off for heating and cooling control, for example), elevator controls, sensors, and security cameras. Two manufacturers on the forefront are Siemens Building Technologies (www.sbt.siemens.com) and Andover Controls (the Continuum product; www.andovercontrols.com).

Typically, you will still need an integrator who specializes in BAS, to help make all the components work together, especially if you need to link to existing proprietary systems. One area of concern in this nascent market is security of network access. Many BAS manufacturers offer basic password protection only. Chaos could ensue if a hacker got into the system, and the potential results could be devastating if the BAS controls the fire suppression systems. For this reason, prudent organizations implement multiple network-security techniques to separate and protect the BAS traffic.

IP speakers. My last choice is a very specific product which, so far, seems to be available from a few sources, including Berbee Information Networks Corp. (www.berbee.com) and Valcom (www.valcom.com). It’s an audio speaker for building paging and announcements. Berbee offers both AC-powered and Power-over-Ethernet (P'E) versions, the latter providing more flexibility in placement. Berbee’s speakers are available as ceiling panels, wall panels, horns, and weatherproof forms, while Valcom’s are available as wall and ceiling models, and in P'E only (but they also offer “talkback”). The speakers can be part of a new installation, or interfaced to an existing paging system. Potential uses are to replace defective speakers, to allow placement in locations where only Category 5/6 cable is available, or to function as a portion of an entire paging system installed with a new voice over IP (VoIP) phone system.

You can place informatics wherever you need them, allowing staff to routinely monitor conditions and be alerted when preset thresholds are reached.

The benefits of this last use are the ability to employ the same cabling everywhere and to avoid separately maintained systems. As with legacy systems, an IP-based paging system can be zoned, and if used in concert with a VoIP system, the zones can be configured by logical uses and groupings as well as or rather than by physical areas.

Peter’s Picks

When it comes to emerging technologies for converged networks, here’s what I’m looking at: dual-mode phones, digital signage, and IP cameras and digital storage.

Dual-mode phones. If you’re like most campus IT personnel, you have to deal with both a cell phone and a desk phone at your work area. When both ring at the same time, you need to determine who is most important (or who you don’t want to speak with at that moment). Having multiple voicemail boxes and multiple phone numbers are other annoyances. Campus IT folks are constantly on the run, so having a fixed desk phone d'esn’t make sense. An ideal solution would be a single wireless phone with a single phone number and voicemail that could operate both on and off campus.

These “dual-mode” phones are becoming a reality. Multiple manufacturers— Nokia (www.nokia.com), HP (www.hp.com), and Motorola (www.motorola.com), to name a few—now offer products that integrate 802.11 wireless technologies into a GSM or CDMA cell phone. The original intent of adding 802.11 was to provide highspeed Internet access when the phone is within range of a high-speed WLAN, giving the user more efficient means of accessing the Internet. Now these phones are connecting to the organization’s data networks and VoIP systems. Some manufacturers offer seamless integration between the enterprise phone system and a cellular network (Motorola is one; visit www.motorola.com/wlan). This allows the individual to maintain a call when leaving the college campus and moving out of campus WLAN coverage.

Digital signage. When people think of digital signage, they think of monitors that display constantly updated information at an airport, hospital, or some retail/public venue. Digital signage is used to convey directions, important announcements, current weather, etc., to keep visitors or customers informed. While mostly used in the commercial arena, digital signage can be a great asset to most college campuses, as well.

In the past, digital signage relied on having a dedicated baseband video connection to every monitor on the system. This meant having to install coaxial cable to each location and headend electronics necessary to make the system work. Often this can be very expensive, especially when delivering different content to each monitor, sometimes requiring a dedicated PC or server for each display. Lately, the shift has been to deliver this content over an organization’s existing data network, utilizing IP.

But streaming video and IP multicast have enabled digital signage to become a more dynamic and less expensive solution for delivering content. Digital signage can now be placed anywhere there is access to the data network, wired or wireless. The content can be individualized for each display, showing, for example, classroom use, campus activities, or directions for clueless freshmen on orientation day.

IP digital signage on your campus can be a useful tool in attracting potential students. Creatively designed digital signage supplying helpful campus information can ease the students’ (and possibly the parents’) transition into an unfamiliar environment. In the long run, it may be well worth the investment. Some manufacturers offering components of a digital signage system are Tivella (www.tivella.com), Scala Broadcast Multimedia (www.scala.com), and VBrick Systems (www.vbrick.com).

IP cameras/digital storage. If you were to look at your current campus security camera system, you would probably find a jumble of coaxial and fiber cables at a central point connected to a large array of VCRs. Somewhere else on your campus is a large storage room with hundreds, possibly thousands, of tapes containing security camera footage. In order to retrieve information, someone would have to consult the camera logs, go digging for the appropriate tape, and then cue up the tape to the precise moment, usually through a process of manually fast-forwarding or rewinding the tape. Thanks to IP, all this has changed.

With the introduction of IP cameras and digital storage to campus security systems, campus IT and security personnel can easily deploy cameras, manage the system, and quickly retrieve stored images. With the vast array of IP cameras available, these systems can match the performance and functionality of “old school” security camera systems. While the ease of installing a camera that connects to the network just like any other IP/Ethernet device may pique your interest, you will find that the dynamic storage and image-retrieval functionality is the true reason you deploy IP cameras and digital storage.

Based on the number of frames-persecond you record, hard-drive compression, and video decoding format (MPEG-4, for example), you will be able to store weeks’ if not months’ worth of images. What’s more, digital storage is cheap. With the appropriate backup plan and network security, the recorded information will be as secure (probably more secure) than a locked room full of tapes. With multiple stored copies of your recorded information, you will never again have to worry about losing information because a tape wore out or was eaten by a VCR.

But the coolest thing about IP cameras and digital storage is accessibility: Any authorized person can retrieve a recorded image from anywhere on the network, simply by entering the date and time into a Web browser. Live feeds from IP cameras can also be accessed in this same fashion. With most security systems moving to IP cameras and digital storage, this may be in your campus’s future. If you already have them in place, smart move.

Will’s Picks

My three converged network product picks focus on technology-enabled teaching applications: classroom control systems, AV resource management systems, and classroom video streaming. Converged-network, low-cost classroom control systems. “Keeping it simple to use” is a mantra for nearly all users of advanced classroom technology. Instructors need to be able to focus on their students, not on a daily struggle with the technology that has been placed there, ostensibly to help them. Yet, the proliferation of projectors, cameras, monitors, VCRs, DVD player/recorders, document cameras, Webstreaming platforms, and collaborative/annotation tools in the well-equipped classroom shows no signs of abating. The control interface for each of these devices poses a challenge for even the savviest classroom designer. Wireless IR remotes tend to disappear, and replacements often cost more than the original piece of equipment. Then too, remote-control-button layouts vary from one model to another, even within the same manufacturer family, making each classroom potentially different to operate, even with similar equipment.

Integrated control system manufacturers have long targeted the higher education market as an ideal place to sell large numbers of control processors and expensive touch panels. Several manufacturers have now focused on providing cost-effective solutions to the lowercost segment of the market, which has resulted in control solutions for well under $1,000 per classroom. The user interface can be a set of physical buttons, or can be integrated through the instructor’s PC and monitor, providing a touch-panel-like interface that d'esn’t add costly equipment (or extra footprint) to the teaching lectern.

These are considered converged network systems, rather than merely additional stand-alone products. Using a Web page in place of a touch panel is a cost-effective use of network bandwidth and existing PC infrastructure, and classrooms can be connected back to a central point, and integrated into...

AV resource management systems. Every campus technology department has examples of instructors being unable to use the technology-enabled teaching tools that have been provided for them. Many times, this means dispatching a technician to fix the problem, which occasionally is caused by equipment failure, but more often is the result of user error. Since lost class time is not replaceable, the ability to monitor and prevent equipment failure and to fix user-error problems in real time is extremely valuable.

An AV resource management system ties data from each individual classroom’s control system back to an administrative software tool. The following are some examples of how such a tool can be used:

· Real-time status of all classrooms can be monitored, showing rack power, projector on/off, current selected source, room lighting, and projector lamp hours for each room.

· With such tools, technicians have the ability to change any of these parameters directly over the converged network from a help desk position, without the technician needing to be dispatched to the room.

· User activity can be logged, so that IT/AV staffers can determine whether people actually use (for example), document cameras, and can see how often they are used (and which instructors and departments use them). Log information helps direct better decisions regarding purchase of new or replacement equipment, since priorities can reflect actual usage patterns.

Examples of classroom integratedtechnology systems that tie back to an AV resource management system include AMX (www.amx.com), Crestron (www.crestron.com), Dukane (www.mediaconva.com), Extron (www.extron.com), and SP Controls (www.spcontrols.com).

Classroom video streaming. Storing and distributing video and audio from classrooms can be an effective way to reach students not able to attend in person, and to provide a handy means to review lectures and class sessions. Camera servers permit the transport of video from a classroom to a control room, where video can be monitored and recorded, cameras controlled, and titles added. What I like about this arrangement is that a single control room can monitor and control cameras for an entire campus, with the network infrastructure the only necessary piece to tie together widely dispersed building locations. A single control room allows centralization of equipment and staff, which in turn leads to greater efficiency and better use of available features. Canon (www.usa.canon.com) is one provider of cost-effective networked cameras and camera servers.

The coolest thing about IP cameras and digital storage is accessibility: Any authorized person can retrieve a recorded image from anywhere on the network, simply by entering the date and time into a Web browser.
The Final Vote

Wendy’s overall choice. In selecting the top pick from all the systems described, I vote for the informatics systems. They’re affordable, can be targeted only where needed, and offer capabilities you wish you had already. Moreover, IT may be able to cost-justify these as supporting the campus business continuity plan, since a campus may now be able to prevent, not just react to, disruptions caused by environmental conditions. Using camera-equipped devices to document security breaches can also assist with data privacy compliance efforts. In fact, these systems deliver multiple positive impacts for higher education organizations. And while they may lack glitz and glamour, just consider the potential savings in insurance costs alone! Of course, one would want to brief the institution’s Risk Management office and solicit its assistance to properly document the reasoning behind and benefits of an informatics system implementation. In the end though, I say: The prudent, fiscally responsible choice among emerging converged network technologies is informatics systems.

Peter’s overall choice. The key to a successful and effective college IT department is communication. That’s why the dual-mode phone will be an important tool on today’s college campuses. Sure, informatics and AV resource management systems are useful devices to manage data and AV systems, but who is called when these devices point out problems? Campus technology personnel. And how do you find these important technicians in a timely fashion? By using dual-mode phones to call them to come and save the day. Not only is communication improved by using a dual-mode phone, but support is easier since the technicians have only a single communication device to maintain. In addition, ongoing cell phone costs are reduced because the dual-mode phone uses the existing VoIP infrastructure when the dual-mode phone user is on campus. My advice: Consider implementing dual-mode phones to provide effective communications for and with your IT support staff.

Will’s overall choice. A college or university exists largely to teach students, not to enable people to chat on their cell phones more readily or to monitor the status of rack-mounted gear humming away in a dark closet. My pick for most significant emerging converged network technology is the classroom management system. Nothing short of a power outage in a building contributes to lost classroom time as much as a technology-enabled classroom that is not working in the hands of an angry professor. Saving this non-replaceable resource (classroom time) by proactively responding to maintenance needs; providing resources to classrooms, based on actual usage; and giving training to instructors based on documented problems allows campus IT staff to use their time most efficiently and provide optimal support to their customers.

So there you have it. Which of us do you agree with? Or is your answer, “None of the above”? We’d like to hear about your top pick: Write us care of this publication, at editors@campustechnology. com.

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