The business case for megapixel

As networked security and video surveillance systems gain traction, so has the use of megapixel cameras for general-purpose applications. The latest generation of megapixel cameras is proving to yield both greater cost-efficiency and video performance.

Megapixel video was once assumed to be more suitable for specialized applications because of early technology limitations related to bandwidth and storage requirements. But now there is a convincing business case for use of megapixel video in any application given the favorable ratio of greater system effectiveness compared to lower overall system costs. As a result, today's megapixel cameras are changing the process by which video surveillance systems are specified, implemented and justified.

Let's look at ways megapixel and IP technologies can be combined to achieve affordable systems:

- Megapixel cameras can improve functionality and lower costs. Networked systems enable the implementation of megapixel cameras, which deliver superior imaging technology and related functionality than analog cameras. A single megapixel camera can typically be used in lieu of several conventional analog or standard definition cameras. Fewer cameras mean fewer cables, less software licensing fees and less installation costs as well. Use of megapixel cameras can take the place of mechanical pan/tilt/zoom devices - users can digitally pan, tilt or zoom in real-time while simultaneously recording the full field of view. Archived video can provide 4 to 30 times the detail over standard definition cameras, depending on the megapixel resolution. Overall, megapixel cameras yield greater return on investment (ROI) than conventional cameras in the long run and in many cases immediately.

- Standardized IT-based components. Megapixel IP video systems are configured using the same "building blocks" as IT systems including servers, network switches, digital storage, etc. This enables megapixel cameras to easily integrate with other video surveillance and security devices with extreme cost-efficiency. The use of H.264 compression has reduced the costs relative to network bandwidth, server CPU capacity and storage - lowering the overall cost of ownership of a megapixel system. Competition among suppliers also has led to lower pricing and has accelerated the development of new technologies to further enhance product functionality. These trends have continued to raise the performance of systems while lowering overall costs.

- Software is taking on a leading role. Because the "brain" of IP video systems is in the software, it is much easier to update or upgrade a system once it has been up and running. Software updates are available via easy online downloads - and they are far more cost efficient than switching out equipment.

- Scalability provides greater flexibility. One of the greatest intrinsic advantages of networking is scalability. With an analog system, adding a camera or moving camera locations requires a great deal of effort, manpower and expense - from physically moving the camera to running new wiring from the head-end to the camera location, installing a local power source and adding additional processing hardware like multiplexers and card cages. With a megapixel IP system, you can add or move a camera by simply mounting it and plugging in a single structured cable to deliver all video, bi-directional data and power. Configuring additional cameras and corresponding servers and storage is all managed by a video management system (VMS) front-end. In most cases, an IP address is automatically assigned upon detection of the new network edge device.

- Ability to use existing infrastructure. Networked systems employing megapixel IP video surveillance cameras can often use existing infrastructure - whether over the Internet, using WiFi or over a corporate network. In any case, existing network infrastructure helps eliminate the need to create a parallel network just for the video surveillance system.

- Lower cabling costs. Structured cable - specifically CAT5/6 - is less expensive than coax cable. It weighs less, is far less bulky and has a faster transmission speed. Cabling is also simplified with Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) - where power is supplied to cameras over the same cable as video and data signals, eliminating the need for a separate power source to the camera. As a result, there is no longer a need to provide localized power at each camera location, which can result in significant cost reductions in manpower, equipment and service.

- Smarter systems are less expensive to operate (and easier to use). Networked systems with high-resolution megapixel cameras capable of capturing great amounts of data are ideal for server-based video analytics to create smart systems and improve overall security while simplifying operations. Megapixel cameras are great tools for situational awareness applications requiring monitoring of vast areas while providing superior forensic recorded information. Paying personnel to watch banks of monitors - often with hundreds of cameras - is expensive and impractical. With megapixel cameras, smart systems can do a much better job of detecting changes in a video frame based on user-defined parameters and automatically notify the appropriate personnel. This allows for fewer employees (lower payroll), yet still realize the real-time benefits of IP video systems.

Overcoming Megapixel Misconceptions

A productive discussion of the business case for megapixel video requires that we put to rest some common misconceptions about the technology. Several come to mind.

- Misconception: Megapixel cameras are too expensive. To compare the price of a megapixel camera with the price of an analog or standard IP camera does not tell the full story. To compare apples to apples, you need to cost out and compare the total number of cameras along with the total infrastructure needed to support them. This approach to cost assessment clearly reveals the efficiencies and cost savings of megapixel cameras. Furthermore, today's megapixel cameras also cost less; in some cases, prices are comparable to IP VGA cameras or analog cameras with encoders.

- Misconception: Megapixel video takes up too much bandwidth and storage. H.264 video compression has eliminated bandwidth and storage concerns related to megapixel video, which can lower costs of a high-quality, megapixel video system. H.264 produces equivalent video quality to the familiar JPEG compression method. The main difference between the two is that H.264 enables a major reduction in bandwidth while providing the same video quality. Bandwidth reduction translates to lower cost of security installations; requirements for networking equipment and disk storage are accordingly reduced. H.264-based cameras produce smaller file sizes which means the VMS server uses less CPU capacity for greater system efficiency.

- Misconception: H.264 compression has a "hidden cost." A common myth about H.264 is the so-called "hidden cost," an erroneous belief that because the computational complexity of the H.264 encoder is high, the required decoder resources must also be high - even more so for megapixel video. In reality, the opposite is true: H.264 streams can actually require less computational power to decompress. The computational complexity of encoding H.264 is located in the camera; and, decompression of H.264 megapixel video by the VMS software is similar to JPEG.

Making the Business Case

A challenge for security professionals is to demonstrate the value of high-quality video to their company's executives using management and security metrics that are specific to their company and to their industry. Expressing the technical capabilities and benefits of new technology to company management in terms of bottom-line benefits is at the heart of a security professionals' job in today's corporate world. Knowledge is vital - both knowledge of the technologies and their capabilities and the knowledge of how they can impact the company's profitability.

When dealing with corporate spending constraints, security professionals should consider carefully both the initial cost of new technology and what the ongoing expenses are projected to be. Above all, one should focus on the value technology can bring to their enterprise. Technology can pay back its purchase price through cost avoidance or better efficiencies such as superior imaging quality and better forensic information. These technologies prove their worth by protecting corporate assets, improving loss prevention, defending against expensive liability lawsuits and making simple security operations more efficient.

Here are some suggestions on communicating with management about system cost:

- Be specific about cost savings. Create a spreadsheet comparing costs of a system using megapixel cameras vs. standard IP or analog camera technologies. Focus on the specific impact of using fewer cameras or eliminating the need for mechanical pan-tilt-zoom devices. Factor in all the costs, including infrastructure savings, reducing the number of components (cameras, housings, cabling), installation and support savings, and operator savings. Prepare your case to present the benefits of the technology in terms of operational advantages for the company as well as the long-term total cost of ownership.

- Emphasize better image resolution. They say that "a picture is worth a thousand words," and the modern corollary might be "a megapixel image is worth a million words." The quality of a megapixel image is a great selling tool for the technology. Viewing live and recorded megapixel images is one of the best ways to make a strong case for the new system. Try comparing a recorded standard-definition or analog image to a megapixel image and zoom in after an event to demonstrate the forensic utility of recorded megapixel video.

The Application Rules

Each customer's application and expectation of image quality should be matched to the right megapixel camera. While a 5MP camera might be an excellent choice in some projects, it is not necessarily ideal for all scenarios. If an application requires faster frame rates or different light sensitivity, for instance, a 1.3MP, 2MP or 3MP camera might be a better option. Being attentive to application requirements and setting expectations are important steps in choosing the right megapixel camera. Finding a knowledgeable installer/integrator is also paramount.

Like all management personnel in today's economy, security professionals need to justify every dollar spent on security. While it is challenging to project the cost savings that tighter security provides relative to protecting assets and personnel, the ability to project ROI relative to savings and related efficiencies from using megapixel cameras vs. conventional imaging devices is easily ascertained.

We urge resellers and users alike to compare the overall performance benefits megapixel cameras deliver and simply calculate the overall cost efficiency they provide. The results couldn't be any clearer.

Raul Calderon is vice president of Marketing for Arecont Vision.