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Video Surveillance: All Eyes Turn to IP

With analog systems difficult to scale and maintain, many institutions want to transition to IP-based video security systems. Can it be done affordably?

Illustration by Shaw Neilsen

Sometimes you just know when enough is enough. Paul Perrone remembers a meeting in the fall of 2008 as one of those moments. He had just joined the University of Rhode Island's Department of Public Safety as senior information technologist. A vendor was trying to convince him to upgrade the five digital video recorders (DVRs) linking the school's 70 analog surveillance cameras. "I didn't have a good gut feeling," he recalls. "I was not going to make a new investment in a system that wasn't scalable. I had to factor growth into the equation."

Thus began several months of research on enhancing the school's video management system on a limited budget.

Like Perrone, many university officials recognize the need to upgrade their older analog systems. In a 2010 survey by Campus Safety magazine, half of university respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the quality and coverage of their current video surveillance systems. Among the limitations of analog CCTV systems are the cost of installing cable to support and power them, especially on a large campus; the difficulty of scaling up; the lack of interoperability with other security systems; and the inability to provide access to authorized users in the field.

Given all that, it's no surprise that colleges and universities want to modernize their systems. Indeed, despite the woeful economic situation, many institutions expect their investment in video surveillance to increase slowly over the next five years, even as funding for other security technologies remains flat. "It's because there is a clear return on investment," explains Tonya Fowler, director of competitive benchmarking services for Frost & Sullivan, which conducted a 2010 survey on video surveillance systems in US educational facilities. According to Fowler, most respondents to the survey believe that their investment in video surveillance will be more than offset by savings in manpower and security officers on the beat.

Now may be a good time to plan your campus's transition. Internet protocol (IP) network-based cameras and digital video management software are maturing. In a nutshell, prices are going down and the number of features is going up. "Three years ago people might have still looked at analog systems, but that is not an option anymore," says Robert Grossman, an electronic security consultant based in Egg Harbor Township, NJ. "Everything is IP now."

Key Issues for IP Transition

Any institution considering a transition to IP-based video surveillance must pay close attention to issues surrounding bandwidth and data storage.

1) Bandwidth. Although bandwidth is more plentiful these days, streaming live video images from hundreds of IP cameras across campus to a central location will no doubt put considerable pressure on a data network. While many universities have hefty network backbones, those with smaller data pipes must pay close attention to how they configure an IP-based surveillance system.

Most campuses choose to stream video to a network video recorder (NVR) located in each building, with access to that recorder managed from a central hub, says John Honovich, the founder of IP Video Market Info. To avoid overloading the wide area network, the NVR forwards the streams only when a user wants to view video from a particular site. The local recorders can reduce the frame rate of the live video stream or reduce the video quality to ensure that the system does not overload the network.

Paying attention to bit rates can also lessen the impact on the network. A constant bit rate can stream video at a fixed low level such as 2 megabits per second. This mode is preferable where bandwidth is limited, because the constant rate can be predefined, but image quality will vary with the amount of motion in a scene. Variable bit rate systems stream at a low rate when there is not much activity, "but when there are lots of people moving around, it bumps up to around 12 megabits per second," explains Honovich. "You have to make sure you have the capacity to handle the spike so it doesn't crash your network."

When evaluating IP cameras, you also need to consider resolution and file compression. The human eye normally sees motion at 22 frames per second (fps). Camera resolutions range from 4 or 5 fps all the way up to 30 fps, requiring much more bandwidth. "Camera manufacturers can promote their products as above 30 fps," says Ron Walczak, principal consultant with Walczak Technology Consultants in Prospect, PA. "That's nice, but I don't need it. Think of all these megapixel cameras, transmitting at megabits-per-second rates. With dozens of them on a network, that could bring your network down."

Even if you don't opt for the clarity of megapixel cameras, you still should take steps to reduce the network load created by an IP-based video system. The key is compression. "By using H.264 compression, it reduces bandwidth needs by up to a factor of 10," says Walczak of the newest video-compression technology. "It really helps."

2) Data Storage. Most university campuses tend to retain their video images for a month or more, which can require dozens of terabytes of storage. Organizations typically store video data on dedicated storage-area networks (SANs). These server-based systems offer flexibility because you can keep adding storage as you need it. The University of Rhode Island, which retains images for 30 days, uses a dedicated 8.25-terabyte HP StorageWorks 1500cs Modular Smart Array. (Storage is becoming less worrisome as it gets cheaper: You can find a 2-terabyte hard drive for $250.)

There are some promising new developments in storage, such as "edge recording," where the recording is stored in the camera itself and the data is transmitted only during alerts or when an official wants to review a specific incident. This has appeal for schools with bandwidth concerns because the recording is independent of other network conditions, such as congestion and downtime.

But edge storage does cost more than centralized storage, and most video management systems don't support edge devices yet. As a result, you either have to use the camera's web interface or pull a card from the camera to retrieve the video. "So far, edge storage is really rare, like 0.1 percent of the market," says Honovich. Another downside is that edge devices require more individual maintenance and the camera itself can be stolen.

Another possibility is cloud storage. Honovich dismisses it as a viable alternative right now, although this is likely to change in the future. At the moment, for both cost considerations and ease of management, an NVR and local storage are a better bet. Bandwidth is a limiting factor of any cloud solution, too, especially in this era of megapixel cameras. And then there are security concerns, since images captured on cameras may ultimately have to be used in court proceedings.

"You may hear about an example or two," says Honovich of schools implementing a cloud solution, "but no one is doing it in reality."

But if putting cameras on your IP network makes sense now, many decisions still need to be made based on your campus's needs, including choices about network configuration, camera types, storage hardware, and video management software.

For example, some universities already have multiple analog systems in different parts of campus, and proprietary systems that can't talk to each other. Fortunately, these institutions don't have to throw the old systems out to implement an IP-based solution. Increasingly, one video management system can work with many different types of cameras, both analog and IP.

Analog cameras can be incorporated into an IP network using encoders. The data is digitized and can be viewed alongside IP camera images. While you don't get the high resolution of IP cameras, the analog cameras should work fine in the new video management system. And additional cameras can easily be added to an IP network using Power over Ethernet (PoE)--the camera draws electricity through its Ethernet connection, eliminating the need for power outlets.

The initial price tag may be higher for IP-based systems than their analog counterparts, but IP systems can end up having a lower total cost of ownership when you consider scalability, better image quality, longer life span, and lower maintenance costs.

"One classic mistake is to look at the cost of an analog camera at $300 and an IP camera at $450 and say you can't afford the IP camera," says Fredrik Nilsson, general manager of Axis Communications, a vendor of video surveillance systems. "You have to look at the total cost of ownership. The larger the system gets, the more savings you will get out of IP."

Trends to Watch

1) Analytics. Many vendors tout their products' video-analytics capability. The newest generation of "smart" IP cameras can be set to send video clips to campus police only when their onboard software detects suspicious behavior, offering potential bandwidth savings.

Some cameras have motion detectors that automatically increase the frame rate when they detect movement. Others have tamper alarms to detect if someone spray-paints or sticks gum on a camera, for example. Yet the analysts interviewed for this article agree that the technology isn't quite ready for prime time. Some systems send too many false alarms and users ultimately turn the features off. "I have a PC with a webcam and video analytics that is supposed to recognize me so I don't have to enter a password all the time," says Robert Grossman, an electronic security consultant. "It works one in 10 times. By and large, people say they will come back to analytics in a few years."

2) Megapixel Cameras. While not new to the market, megapixel cameras still garner a lot of attention. They provide much higher resolution than traditional surveillance cameras, making them helpful in situations that require detailed images for identification purposes. They may have some performance issues in difficult lighting situations, however, and they also require careful balancing of network configuration, bandwidth, compression, and frame rates. Megapixel cameras are becoming less expensive every year, costing only $50 to $100 more than other cameras. And some models require considerably less bandwidth and storage than earlier versions.

3) Licensing Fees. Traditionally, analog CCTV system vendors didn't charge an ongoing maintenance fee because they were just selling cameras and a DVR. Now that video surveillance is more of a software solution, most video management system vendors charge about $300 per camera for a one-time licensing fee. And some now also charge an annual maintenance fee. Think twice before shelling out for this. "There are so many credible players that don't charge," says John Honovich, the founder of IP Video Market Info, "that even the ones that do are willing to negotiate about it. It is a good question to ask up front."

Consultants and Integrators
When upgrading from analog to IP, you must first decide whether to tackle the project in-house or outsource it. URI's Perrone decided to turn to system integrator Galaxy Integrated Technologies to install Verint Systems' Nextiva IP video management software, along with Nextiva eight-channel encoders--all leveraging the university's existing infrastructure.

"In my mind, if we could work with a single vendor that knows the products and had installed them successfully elsewhere, I could feel good about it," Perrone says. "Galaxy had many major accounts."

Consultants and integrators are basically an engineering department for hire, says consultant Grossman. "You hire us because you don't have the expertise in-house or you don't have the time. If you are going to investigate this yourself, it can be a time sinkhole."

Not all consultants are created equal, though, and it pays to do due diligence before signing on the dotted line. Some system integrators are closely linked to certain manufacturers, for example, while some consultants too often take the safest route. "If a consultant is saying go with the same big vendor 80 percent of the time, it raises some red flags," says John Honovich, the founder of IP Video Market Info, a video surveillance information portal. He suggests looking for diversity and how creative a consultant is at crafting solutions.

Whether you implement the IP solution yourself or hire an outside party, be sure you understand how open or proprietary the video management system and equipment are. Understandably, many universities are shying away from becoming locked in with one manufacturer. In response, many vendors are now working to adopt open standards to allow their equipment to work together.

Related Reading
The University of Rhode Island is committed to transitioning from its current analog system to an IP-based surveillance system. Click here to read the full story of how URI is planning for the upgrade with the help of a third-party integrator.

Must-Have Features
If scalability is a must-have for universities looking to upgrade their video surveillance system, legacy issues are often the make-or-break aspect of any move to an IP system. And for many colleges, this means ensuring that the new IP system can be integrated with their existing access-control system, which controls entry to buildings such as dorms and labs.

"For more than half the university customers, this will dictate product choices," says Honovich, who says that access-control systems are so hard to replace that no one attempts it unless forced to. "When you see RFPs for new video systems," he says, "they will almost always state which access-control system they have in place and that the video system must integrate with it."

Equally important for many schools is ease of use--the user interface must be straightforward enough for campus safety officials to grasp quickly. This was certainly a high priority at URI.

"With the previous system, you needed IT skills to search the video and do the archiving," explains Perrone. "The Verint video management system has a much friendlier user interface. The officers can easily search through it themselves."

Ease of use should not be mistaken for simplicity, however. Today's surveillance products are far more sophisticated than earlier iterations. With many systems, for example, safety officials can now access the network from a home computer or a smartphone, or allow access to system cameras from outside the network. Police officers can be given login credentials to view cameras from a laptop or smartphone before entering a building in response to an incident. And the ability to monitor and record sound can provide campus police with a more complete picture of an incident and help identify suspects.

In deploying any complicated new system, say consultants, the key is to avoid throwing users in at the deep end. "You may want to start with the basic package and a smaller feature set until your staff is up to speed--and then move up," advises Grossman.

Vendor Roundup

Avigilon sells an HD surveillance system, including control-center software and a wide range of megapixel cameras. The system can capture audio and video, and integrates with existing analog systems.

Axis Communications
Axis provides its Camera Station video management software (VMS) to complement its range of network cameras. Video encoders allow integration with analog systems, and a Windows-based client permits remote viewing.

Genetec's Omnicast IP surveillance system is open platform, allowing users to connect analog and IP cameras from different vendors, scale as needed, and optimize bandwidth use. The system allows remote access, and video can be shared with police.

GVI Security
GVI Security is geared toward small to midsize entities requiring simple IP video surveillance solutions. It product line includes AutoIP (open-platform VMS) and a series of network video recorders, megapixel cameras, and video encoders.

Infinova touts its ability to integrate IP and analog systems, extending the life of existing equipment. It offers a range of megapixel and IP cameras, and its V2216 network VMS is a central management platform for network video systems of all sizes.

Lensec's Perspective VMS works with both IP and analog cameras, can share video images with authorities, and offers remote viewing with no client-side software installation. Its camera viewer provides virtual pan-tilt-zoom on any network camera.

Milestone Systems
Milestone's XProtect open platform supports IP cameras, encoders, and nonproprietary DVRs and NVRs from more than 80 different manufacturers. A remote client feature offers live view and playback from up to 16 cameras.

Panasonic System Networks
Panasonic markets a full range of IP video solutions, including megapixel and vandal-proof cameras. Its WV-ASM970 system management software is compatible with analog and IP network cameras.

Verint Systems
The Nextiva IP video management solution can support hybrid analog/IP configurations, and optimizes bandwidth use through compression and dual streaming capabilities. Verint also sells integrated analytics, IP cameras, encoders, and intelligent DVRs.

Video Insight
Video Insight offers a full suite of open-architecture IP video surveillance software, with a focus on school districts and higher ed. The software supports both analog and IP cameras, and provides map- and floor plan-based navigation.

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