Eye on Video: How standards are changing the face of surveillance

Connecting a laptop to a monitor or projector, plugging a memory stick into a computer or even using a 3G phone overseas has become so commonplace that few people bother to think about the underlying technology that makes that possible. But the reason all those components from different manufacturers work so flawlessly together comes down to a single word: standards. Standards establish uniform engineering or technical criteria that vendors agree to adhere to when manufacturing their products.

The biggest beneficiaries of standards are end-users. Instead of being locked into proprietary solutions, standards allow them to pick and choose best-of-breed components from different manufacturers with confidence that all the pieces will work well together. Freedom of choice tends to increase competition between vendors — ultimately speeding delivery of better products to the market at a lower price as the market expands at an ever-higher rate.

Who Sets Standards?

Specifications only become standards once they have been ratified by a Standards Developing Organization (SDO). Some SDOs are worldwide, such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) which ratified such networking standards as Ethernet. There are also regional SDOs such as the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC) and national standards bodies such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

While “standards” has a very specific meaning, the term sometimes gets applied to products that have not been ratified by an SDO. The Internet Protocols (IP version 4 and version 6), for example, were not ratified by an SDO. Rather they were specifications worked out by several companies cooperating in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which produces specifications called Requests for Comments (RFC). These “de-facto standards” — the result of structured work by several companies — usually work as well as standards ratified by SDOs and often become widely accepted and deployed by the market.

Standards for the Video Surveillance Industry

In the analog world, regional organizations have ratified standards for the video signal coming from the analog cameras. One is NTSC, which is used in America. The other is PAL, which is used in Europe. Those standards — ratified in the 1950s — came from the television industry and have made it possible for analog cameras from multiple vendors to be used in a single system. However, since the standards are regional rather than worldwide, vendors still need different versions of their products for different markets, which add to development, manufacturing and logistics costs.

In contrast, most standards ratified for the network video world come from the IT industry and have the benefit of being worldwide standards. Standards relevant to video surveillance fall into three categories: networking, video resolution and video compression.

• Networking standards: Several networking standards facilitate the communication between the components in network video systems, including 802.11a/b/g wireless and Power over Ethernet (PoE). Providing a standardized way to deliver power as well as data communication over the same cable — the IEEE 802.3af standard for PoE — has had a huge impact on the growth of the network camera market (For more information, please see Fredrik Nilsson’s story, “PoE and the New Proposed 802.3at Standard,” available at SecurityInfoWatch.com and in the January issue of STE). There are also standards to ensure secure data transmission over IP networks such as IEEE 802.1X, as well as de-facto standards for managing IP addresses such as Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP). In all, there are more than two dozen important standard protocols that network video devices should comply with in order to be truly interoperable.

• Video resolution standards: In the IT world, where network video standards originated, the basic resolution is 640x480, which conforms to the VGA (Video Graphic Array) resolution, a de-facto standard specified by IBM. For higher resolutions, there are also HDTV (High Definition TV) standards such as 720p (with a 1280x720 resolution) and 1080i/p (with a 1920x1080 resolution). The HDTV standards as defined by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) also indicate adherence to color fidelity and frame rate.

• Video compression: There are a host of standards for video compression — from simple picture compression like JPEG, to more advanced H.263, MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4. The latest compression standard applicable for video surveillance is H.264. As the product of a joint standards effort between the IT and telecom worlds, it has the necessary pedigree to outperform its predecessor and gain more widespread adoption. A number of other standards govern the audio compression in video — such as G.726 and G.711 — both coming out of the telecom industry.

As more regions and industries support standards, the more R&D money they invest in product development to meet those standards. This gives rise to great competition for best-of-breed components from which end-users can choose to build their ideal surveillance solutions.

Will the Security Industry Ever Drive its Own Standards?

As mentioned, most of the standards used in the video surveillance industry today originated in the larger IT, telecom and television industries. But now standards developed within the security industry itself are on the horizon, which will complement the existing standards already deployed.

Recently, several organizations have become active in the development of standards for network-connected video surveillance devices. One group is the Security Industry Association (SIA), which is accredited by ANSI as a national SDO. Two other groups — the Open Network Video Industry Forum (ONVIF) and Physical Security Interoperability Alliance (PSIA) — were launched in 2008 and are focusing on improving compatibility by creating global open standards for the network interface between network video products. They want to define how network cameras, video encoders and video management systems communicate with one another to make it easier to integrate various brands of video equipment into a single solution. Among the IP video standards the groups plan to address are issues surrounding video streaming, device discovery and management, intelligence metadata and event handling, as well as real-time viewing and remote pan/tilt/zoom control. ONVIF is also addressing testing to ensure conformance to the standards — especially important in the early days of a new standard.

Standardizing will give end-users a wider choice of cameras compatible with their network systems, which should spur adoption of network video technology. Greater product demand and higher production volumes for network camera manufacturers will trigger economies of scale that will ultimately lower costs for the end-user. We should begin seeing products based on these new standards initiatives in 2009 and realize a significant impact on the market by 2010.

Stumbling Blocks to Proactivity

With potential benefits so huge, what has stopped the security market until now from taking an active role in the standards arena? The reasons are two-fold. First, developing standards is a huge undertaking and requires active participation from key leaders at several vendors. In very early markets, those leaders are more focused on spending their time building the business than developing standards. Second, some vendors of incumbent analog technology are less likely to spend time and effort on driving standards that will accelerate growth of the IP-based video market and undermine their own customer base by opening the door for end-users to choose other best-of-breed components. By the same reasoning, companies within the network video market seem more eager to collaborate on open standards in order to hasten the market shift to IP.

Fredrik Nilsson is general manager of Axis Communications, a provider of IP-based network video solutions that include network cameras and video encoders for remote monitoring and security surveillance. His exclusive “Eye on Video” series can be found at www.SecurityInfoWatch.com and IPSecurityWatch.com.