The Roots of Remote Monitoring
Implementing large-scale monitoring systems
- By Kenichi Mori
- Oct 01, 2014
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
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.
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
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
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
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
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Security Today.