Happy 15th Birthday

Analog is the past; IP solutions represent the future

2011 will be a big year for IP surveillance. Not only has its growth remained steady throughout a recession, but large surveillance projects are announced each day. This is the year when the network camera celebrates its 15-year anniversary.

The technology wasn’t exactly a game-changer when first launched in 1996, but as innovators have honed it to specifically improve physical security, it’s clear that security professionals can do so much more with IP. Still, 15 years later, it’s surprising to see so many still stuck in an analog age.

IP-based installations make up only about 25 percent of the total surveillance market, which on the surface is not that impressive, considering how long it’s been around. But after further examination, we see that it was really only about five years ago when conversion of the market really took off. This was driven in large part by rapid technological improvements, along with extensive market education efforts from several vendors with an interest in accelerating the shift. As analog has been a trusted surveillance technology for decades, this education was, and remains, key to convergence.

As the industry is in the middle of this shift, it’s interesting to look closer and see that the rate of conversion is drastically different if we compare small systems -- fewer than 16 cameras -- to large systems -- more than 50 cameras.

The smaller systems are still predominantly analog due to the perception that DVRs and analog cameras are the most cost-effective solution. For large systems, IP seems to be the only solution that can adequately address end-user needs.

So why is IP such a good fit in many systems? Why should customers move to IP? The end-user’s decision typically boils down to the following three reasons: better video quality, better scalability and lower total cost of ownership.

Better video quality. Video quality is, or at least should be, the most important feature of a surveillance system. We have all seen grainy black and white video from a gas station robbery on the local 10 o’clock news, and not many could forget the blurry image of the Craigslist Killer strolling through the hotel lobby.

Despite what is shown on many crime dramas like CSI and Law and Order, the images are only as good as the camera’s capabilities allow and cannot be enhanced after the fact.

In truth, IP cameras initially offered video quality inferior to that of analog cameras. The quality became on par some eight or nine years ago and then became slightly better a couple years later with the introduction of progressive scan imagers. Still, the quality difference between analog and IP was subtle for many and not a key driver to make the move.

Then, about five years ago, megapixel cameras became prevalent, creating a popular reason to move to IP. Unfortunately, this often came at the expense of lower frame rates, large storage costs and less light sensitivity. That changed in 2009.

With the introduction of the first true HDTV network cameras -- those that complied with the relevant parts of the SMPTE standard for frame rate, resolution, color fidelity and aspect ratio -- IP cameras’ video quality was suddenly vastly superior to analog cameras and quickly became the main driver toward IP. This is no different from how flat-screen TVs in our homes have turned old tube TVs into dinosaurs.

The previously high cost of storing high-quality video also was addressed in HDTV cameras by using H.264 compression, effectively cutting storage costs caused by earlier megapixel network cameras that used M-JPEG. The quick adoption has made many cost-effective HDTV-compliant cameras available on the market, starting at $400.

Better scalability. Thinking about the more than one billion Internet users on the planet and then considering that IP also can scale down effectively to two to three computers in a home network makes you quickly realize the unmatched scalability of IP for any application. Analog surveillance technology has very limited and expensive infrastructure choices -- coax cable or fiber -- that are all home-run per camera and rarely found in existing facilities.

IP infrastructure, such as Cat. 5 or Cat. 6, is often available in facilities both old and new, and there is a vast array of fiber and wireless options available.

Additionally, analog systems are limited by the 8-, 16- or 32-channel building blocks restricted by the DVR. This means that commissioning a 17-, 18-, 33-, or 34-camera system is very expensive even if the user wants to add only one or two more cameras. The greater scalability of IP has long been a driver in large systems, and many new systems have been buildable based on IP technology.

There are quite a few systems in the world with more than 10,000 cameras in one integrated surveillance system, and even a few with more than 100,000 cameras.

This scalability and integration with other systems could only be possible using IP technology, making it one of the main drivers of IP for a long time.

However, the majority of surveillance systems installed today would be classified as small. These are still predominantly analog, mainly because of cost justification, lack of education and perceived complexity of IP. This is expected to change over the coming years as more manufacturers are focusing on providing cost-effective and easy-to-install solutions for smaller systems.

One technology that will be the catalyst for this change is cloud computing, also known as hosted video. Leveraging hosted video services will make it extremely cost-effective to deploy small systems with fewer than five cameras per site using IP cameras.

Finally, for local storage solutions, expect to see systems based on networkattached storage (NAS) or even higher-capacity SD-cards built into the network camera. This will provide an inexpensive video storage solution for small camera systems, as opposed to using a proprietary DVR.

Lower total cost of ownership. The total cost of installation and ownership of IP has been a much-debated topic over the last couple of years. As with any technology shift, there were a number of early adopters that bought IP-based surveillance systems some 10 years ago despite its higher cost. But as the technology matured and costs of IP came down, it was revealed in a 2007 independent study that systems with more than 32 cameras actually had lower costs if they used IP.

This is when total cost became a major driver.

More recently, a follow-up study showed that IP now has a cost advantage for systems as small as 25 cameras. To many people’s surprise, the study also claimed that in even some smaller camera systems as low as 14 cameras, the costs for IP and analog installations in a greenfield could be similar.

The most common cost misconception regarding IP-based surveillance systems is to compare only the costs between the cameras. IP cameras are clearly more expensive than their analog counterparts due to the higher functionality, image quality and capabilities. It is important to remember that a major part of a surveillance system consists of cabling/infrastructure and video management/storage.

Both cabling/infrastructure and video management/storage are found in standard IT equipment for the IP-based system, and therefore users will quickly find cost savings when compared to analog. Additionally, IP technology follows Moore’s Law, which states that physical capacity and performance of IP-based products will double every two years while cost remains the same.

With this trend continuing, and with volumes of IP cameras rapidly increasing, expect to see lower cost become a major driver for IP in smaller systems just as it has been in larger surveillance systems. Image quality, scalability and lower total cost of ownership will not only continue to be major drivers for the shift over to IP, but their advantages will continue to grow and become more obvious for any size system, which will only accelerate the shift in the future.

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Security Today.

About the Author

Fredrik Nilsson is the VP, Americas, for Axis Communications, Inc. He has more than 15 years of experience with IP video systems and is the author of “Intelligent Network Video: Understanding Modern Video Surveillance Systems” published by CRC Press and now available in its second edition.

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