IP=Interoperability (And Other Myths)

Who’d of thought something as humble as the Internet Protocol (IP) could roil the video surveillance market so?

IP-based cameras, networks and other gear promise not only to drive down hardware, installation, operations and maintenance costs -- they also will greatly improve video imagery, make possible innovative new surveillance techniques and facilitate video’s integration with other security systems and with IT in general.

IP brings video into the information technology mainstream, enabling cameras and other hardware to take advantage of the mass-market’s economies of scale. With IP, standard Ethernet-based networks treat video imagery as just another type of data -- albeit a rich and somewhat bulky one -- that can be recorded, analyzed and viewed anywhere on the Internet with something as compact as a handheld phone or PDA -- a big help for first responders.

For all its promise, however, IP isn’t magic. Just because two products employ IP and its fellow traveler, Ethernet, it does not mean that they will immediately be able to work together in any useful way. Yet, many customers expect that kind of plug-and-play facility. They equate “IP” with “open architecture” and assume it will enable them to mix and match hardware devices and software regardless of brand.

In fact, while adopting IP certainly is a big step towards creating an open architecture for all kinds of security systems, including video, it doesn’t solve all problems of interoperability.

For now, some open architectures are more open than others.

No Shame In Confusion

Actually, customers can be excused for being confused right now. The video surveillance market is growing fast, and the change from analog to digital is nothing short of radical. Moore’s Law, which states that computer processing power doubles every 18 months, enables digital products to evolve extremely rapidly.That puts some major market positions at stake.

So, while smaller manufacturers are open to accusations of overselling IP video’s ad- vantages, the larger, analog-centric makers are not above pooh-poohing the new technology as overly complex, relatively expensive and less than rock-solid. Typical of the doubts they’ve been heard to raise:Would you trust something as critical as physical security to a PC-based server that might have viruses or need rebooting once a day?

“IP networking has excellent potential,” states Steve Surfaro, group manager and strategic technical liaison at Panasonic, a leading maker of analog gear. “Is it unstoppable? Absolutely. But there will be a gradual progression. Analog will always be there, even if gets relegated to entrylevel products.”

So far, digital technology has had its biggest impact at the head-end, in the equipment that records and displays video signals. The shift to digital recording has shifted innovation almost entirely to software, which has not always been the strongest suit for the established providers. GE, Bosch, Panasonic, Honeywell and Pelco, among others, have responded mainly in two ways: moving to acquire makers of digital gear and software, and striving to innovate more in the area of cameras. Increasingly, intelligence is being built into cameras themselves, a move that is directly facilitated by IP.

Smart Cameras

While continuing to sell a full line of analog cameras and digital encoding/decoding equipment, Bosch Security Systems is growing its line of intelligent IP-based cameras.

They can perform the kinds of analytics that have usually run in centralized servers: analyzing traffic patterns, detecting loiterers, and noticing objects that get left behind as someone leaves a scene. “The beauty of this is that the camera decides by itself to report what it sees,” says Bob Banerjee, product marketing manager for IP video products at Bosch. “The distribution of intelligence means a fundamentally different total cost of ownership. You can have a camera in Outer Mongolia.This is a world where not everyone has high bandwidth networks.”

Bosch, Banerjee states, wants to drive down the analytics license price point to $200-$300 per camera and “bring analytics to the masses.”

Pricing And Quality

Panasonic is actively innovating in IP cameras, too. It is fleshing out a line of Ethernet- ready cameras while adding IP encoding to certain analog models. The latter, says Surfaro, still have some advantages in low-light surveillance, for instance, though digital technology is fast-improving there, too. Certain situations, he says, are still tackled best with a combination of analog and digital cameras.

Panasonic is putting special emphasis on improving image quality because it sees that as a key differentiator versus the many consumer-class IP cameras now flooding the surveillance market. High-resolution images from cameras that have multimegapixel sensors will be a big help with the coming wave of new image-processing and analytic techniques. “Pricing is a serious problem as the industry moves to IP,” Surfaro says. “Other makers are not investing in image quality as much as adding IP transport.” By tapping its heritage in broadcast video, Panasonic hopes to distinguish itself from the pack.

Panasonic is also readying a line of surveillance monitors that use the same High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) used in home television setups. This will help the company to ride the consumer market cost curve.

Another company with a strong analog legacy is Pelco. “We continue to sell a lot of analog products,” says Rob Morello, product marketing manager for digital systems. “Enterprise customers are all looking for IP.But a lot of these customers don’t want to do forklift upgrades, and their analog equipment is not fully depreciated.” Pelco’s answer has been to bring out a matrix digital decoder that enables IP cameras to operate as an extension to analog networks. It’s selling this directly to customers and also plans to sign up other manufacturers to resell it.

Few Other CCTV Standards

Morello says that as a whole, the IP surveillance market is still short on industry standards. Unfortunately, Pelco is not a big enough business to dictate standards, especially in the face of the much larger consumer and PC markets.That provides an opportunity for Pelco and other companies to select a few standards -- for digital video compression, for instance -- and throw their weight behind them as a way to help security systems integrators. “We will provide free APIs to others,” says Morello.

Among those others are Milestone Systems and OnSSI, which make PCbased video management software. By necessity, each has had to work hard in educating the marketplace about the benefits of IP networking and digital video. “We believe we are making the video server industry more horizontal,” says Milestone’s Eric Fullerton, chief sales and marketing officer. Old-line analog venders, he says, have traditionally been vertically integrated, making everything from cameras to storage systems. “IP is enabling the decoupling of hardware from software.”

Milestone, he says, has designed its software to be open to many different suppliers’ gear, including more than 35 brands of camera.“ We aim to provide more choice in best-of- breed hardware, applications, and storage.” Certain competitors, he says, have tried to “create vertically-integrated stacks of technology” that often include proprietary cameras. “We want to help people bust out of proprietary jail.”

Gadi Piran, president of OnSSI, offers a similar story about open architecture, claiming his company’s NVR software works with some 300 IP cameras, across a broad range of quality, features, and pricing. He notes that for each type of camera, OnSSI may have to develop specialized software to handle control functions such as pan, tilt, and zoom, but the actual video images it records arrive in one of only a few fairly well-accepted standards.

Cisco Lends Its Weight

If there’s any company whose name is synonymous with IP, it’s Cisco Systems, the leader in IP-based networking gear. And Cisco has made it very clear that it has serious plans in the area of IP-based video and in all forms of physical security. If nothing else, IP-based video will help drive demand for Cisco’s network routers and switches, which are and will be the core of its business.

Cisco’s vision of video surveillance networks is modeled on what it has accomplished in IP telephony: The IP network is not simply plumbing, a means merely of moving bits from here to there; it also provides a range of technical services and serves, in essence, as a platform on which other companies and customers themselves can build applications. Unplug a Cisco IP telephone in your company’s office in California and reconnect it in the Paris branch office, for instance, and the company network will automatically detect the change and act accordingly.

Your calls will be forwarded to Paris and all of your directory services and other information will be available exactly as if you were in the home office. Equally important, since the network recognizes the device as a phone, it will prioritize any traffic headed its way to make sure the audio they’re carrying suffers no degradation because of packet delays.

It should be the same with video, says Bob Beliles, senior manager of physical security market management at Cisco: “Once the network is a video platform, it will be much easier and faster for integrators and dealers to install new systems. Developers will be able to add more features and networks will be much easier to scale.”

This will require makers of edge devices such as cameras to embrace certain standards, “but that’s the beauty of standards,” Beliles says. “Anyone can implement them. And if they do, any vendor’s product will communicate with any other vendor’s product.”

The alternative is the maddening process of developing interfaces to help different products interoperate. Says Dennis Charlebois, Cisco’s director of product management for physical security:“In our experience, easily 19 of 20 companies will say they do something [as defined in a technical spec] when actually they do not. This creates a lot of pressure and wastes a lot of money.” Building to a set of standards will assure everyone of some level of basic interoperability. Says Charlebois: “The challenge will be in getting something out there that people will adopt.We must collaborate with others to establish standards.”

Installed Base To Protect

As Cisco sees it, the first standards to get in place will be at the edge, inside cameras. Following that is middleware, the software that integrates video with other security systems with analytics and perhaps even CRM systems. Other standards will be needed to deliver video for viewing on desktop workstations and mobile devices.

Cisco’s hardly ignoring the sizeable number of customers still using analog networks and cameras. Its acquisition of SyPixx Networks brought it software and hardware technologies that enable analog video networks to IP-based setups. “This enables us to provide a hybrid environment,” Beliles says.

Whether Cisco can successfully leverage its unsurpassed networking know-how into the security market remains to be seen. And how well old-line providers can navigate the technical and economic changes wrought by IP is another big question mark. Perhaps the only sure bet is that eventually, and probably sooner than later, IP will dominate video surveillance as it has just about every other field on which it has set its sights.

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