The Roots of Remote Monitoring

Implementing large-scale monitoring systems

The concept of remote monitoring started in the 1970s, when it became possible to send black/white analog video images over regular phone lines. Granted, the transmission was painfully slow—taking around 30 to 60 seconds per image—but the roots of remote monitoring were there. When the first IP camera came to market in the late 1990s, it did not take long for integrators and end users alike to grasp the benefits of accessing video via the Internet.

Over the years, remote monitoring has become increasingly sophisticated as wireless area network (WAN) bandwidth, transmission speeds and image quality have improved. Today’s remote monitoring systems can scale almost infinitely, making them cost-effective solutions for securing large, geographically dispersed environments.

Monitoring IP cameras from a central location is an effective way to provide live, 24-hour site protection, without the costs associated with manned patrols. The more sites and the greater the geographical distance, the more the savings scale. For instance, a chain of stores might have hundreds of locations scattered across the country or even the world, yet a single control center can secure each location and respond to emergencies.

The basis of all remote monitoring systems, large or small, is that they funnel video feeds and other security information back to a main control center at a remote site. This provides customers with:

Web-based access to live video. The remote monitoring application itself resides on a centralized server and users access the application from PCs or handheld devices via any standard Web browser. The application interfaces with IP cameras via terminal servers and network connections. More sophisticated remote monitoring applications can integrate with other security devices, as well. For example, control relays at the site can be manipulated remotely via the Webbased access. These can operate gates, sound alarms, or turn on smoke-generating machines.

Multi-user capabilities. Remote monitoring systems are easily scalable to accommodate multiple users simultaneously. Each user is assigned a unique account with access to the various functions governed by their role. This can range from view-only modes to executing system administration. View-only access can also be provided to the general public, such as a department of transportation making highway camera feeds accessible to drivers who would like to monitor traffic conditions.

Storage for critical video. Remote monitoring systems need ample hard disk storage in order to save video linked to critical events. Whether this storage system is housed in the main control center or another offsite location is a question of how fail-safe the storage needs to be. The amount and type of storage needed varies based on video quality, frame rate, the compression standard used by the IP cameras, the number of cameras, the number of hours per day video needs to be recorded, and how long the video will be stored.

Remote monitoring systems work by connecting IP cameras to 24-hour control centers, where video can be viewed and managed based on any number of criteria. For example, a remote operation specialist might receive an alarm—an email message or page— if a camera detects motion, or if a virtual “trip line” is triggered. If an alarm is triggered, the operator specialist can easily pull up video from the associated camera and determine the cause and any relevant next steps. Was the trip line activated by an intruder, or was it a stray dog? Depending on the answer, the course of action will be very different.

If the video indicates that there is a problem, the operator can manage the incident from the control center by implementing a series of approved protocols. Can a verbal warning be issued to the intruder via an onsite speaker? Or do local police need to be called? Generally in a remote monitoring scenario, operators are given customized procedures to follow in order to mitigate various security issues. This helps facilitate faster decision making and improves the outcome of the response.

To keep support staff informed, the monitoring system needs to send operators unambiguous and informative notifications about each problem. Such notifications must be configured according to the source and severity of the issue. An escalation path should be outlined along with the operator’s ability to take action. A report of the incident should be reviewed afterward in order to ensure that the best possible outcome was achieved.

In concept, remote monitoring sounds simple enough: access and view video online and make security decisions according to the information provided. However, it’s important to correctly set up the infrastructure in order to minimize costs and maximize functionality, now and in the future. The larger the system, the more critical the underlying network infrastructure becomes. The following overview will give end users and installers some things to think about when installing such systems.

Network Considerations

The first step in designing a network for remote monitoring is to take inventory of the existing equipment and its functionality. Does the network do what it needs to do? Will it have the capacity to support future needs or advanced features like PoE? If not, upgrades to the cabling, routers and servers could be required in order to make sure everything is in working order.

For large-scale remote monitoring installations, multiple servers should be configured in a multitiered hierarchical architecture, such as a star or redundant star topology. Star configurations minimize the load on each switch and reduce the overall server load. They also provide a high level of redundancy for the LAN, which is critical to maintaining network uptime. In addition, star networks make it easier to repair faults and to remove parts because there are no disruptions to the network if a component fails.

By contrast, a daisy chain configuration should never be used, even though it is one of the simplest ways to add IP cameras to a network. A daisy chain topography presents too many bottleneck issues and has low redundancy, which can lead to more frequent network failures.

Another consideration that will enhance the reliability of a remote monitoring system is an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). A UPS is an electrical device that provides emergency power if the primary power source fails. Unlike an auxiliary or standby generator, a UPS provides almost instant protection from power outages. The life of a UPS is relatively short—usually up to 15 or 30 minutes—but this is typically sufficient time until standby power sources are turned on.

Documentation is often overlooked when designing the network. However, the correct documentation is immensely valuable for an end user, particularly when there is a need for system maintenance, additions or changes. Documenting how all the cables are wired can reduce the number of customer support calls, which is good for both the customer and the integrator.

Good network documentation should include a map of the physical network with all cable locations, a description of the port numbering scheme, a list of camera and server IP addresses, and a reference for camera settings.

Connecting the Network

In order to connect the LAN to the Internet, a network connection via an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or T service must be maintained, otherwise the control center will lose communication with the remote sites it is meant to be managing. While a star network can help ensure reliability of the LAN, what would happen to the remote monitoring system should the customer’s chosen ISP go down?

Some ISPs will guarantee “99 percent uptime,” meaning that a customer’s Internet connection will be live and working 99 percent of the time. That sounds like a great guarantee, but looking at those numbers in terms of days per year means that there could be up to 3.5 days a year in which the Internet connection fails. Of course, those Internet outages may not occur in such large blocks of times. It’s more likely to happen a few seconds or minutes at a time, which eventually adds up to 1 percent downtime. But what if the ISP encounters a major problem and does experience an outage for several hours, or even a few days? Can customers function without access to their remote monitoring systems for that long?

The answer, of course, depends on the customer. A retailer may be able to function better than perhaps a school district, where security is of the utmost concern. For those customers needing access to their remote monitoring systems 100 percent of the time, backup Internet connections must be considered. In many cases, backup connections can be established over a 4G mobile network. This protects customers from network downtime or even from potential intruders who would look to interfere with communications between the central command center and remote sites.

Making this a reality does require some advanced planning, though. IP cameras and other security devices need to be outfitted with 4G SIM cards, which usually come at an additional cost. Also, contracts with the 4G providers need to be negotiated to ensure bandwidth is not throttled down. This level of backup will not be necessary in every case, but it is available to those who require it.

Another benefit of 4G is that it can enable IP cameras to be installed in areas where broadband connections do not exist, and where it would be costprohibitive to install them. This can give customers greater flexibility when planning their remote monitoring systems.

In fact, 4G may be the major tipping point for professional-grade remote monitoring applications. The tremendous increase in over-the-air (OTA) bandwidth means that 4G networks can now provide multi-megabit wireless data rates that were never possible before. While we are already seeing 3G infrastructure replacing cables in some smaller remote monitoring systems, the technology is still not quite reliable enough for large-scale installations.

Don’t Forget to Train

Remote monitoring systems often introduce new equipment and procedures that are likely to be unfamiliar to users, so training is one of the most important elements of implementing a successful system. After all, the system can only be as good as those who are operating it. The proper training helps operators make better decisions and use the remote monitoring system to its full capacity.

Training can be particularly important when it comes to new processes and procedures. Oftentimes operators pick up on the new technology much more quickly than new procedures, which require changes to ingrained behavior. Also, various user groups will require different levels of training, depending on how they will be interacting with the system. This is an important step because the right training will reduce the number of support calls.

Remote monitoring is one of the many benefits of IP-based surveillance solutions, and it’s a feature that many customers want to use. Setting up the network correctly and implementing the right documentation and training procedures will help make the system more reliable and functional and will reduce the level of post-installation support. The larger and more complex the remote monitoring system, the more critical these elements are to ensuring success.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Security Today.

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