The Shrinking Security Operations Center

Oct. 27, 2008
After integrated hardware and GUIs, focus turns to visualization software technology

The security industry has undergone a series of exciting evolutionary steps in the last few years. First, there was the transition from analog to digital; then, the advent and spreading of systems integration. Soon after, we experienced convergence as the IP network became a de facto standard and a focal point for security innovation and integration. These advances—digitization, integration and convergence—have resulted in improved security, increased productivity and a physical shrinking of the security operations center (SOC). But they were just a prelude to the dynamic advancements now taking place.

The SOC Evolves
The security operations center is a barometer of where security innovation is going. Early in the process of hardware digitization, first-generation SOCs were roughly the same size as earlier analog rooms. Think Mission Control from the Apollo days—rows of consoles, lots of monitors, and a back room or two crammed with hardware.

At this point, digital was still just a word for a type of implementation. What did it actually bring us? We progressed from an analog recorder to a DVR. Accessing video faster certainly was an improvement, but beyond that, the benefits were relatively minor. As time went on, footprints got smaller, but no significant change occurred until the leap from the DVR to the NVR, or network video recorder. Because the NVR is a software solution, it opened up a lot of real estate in the SOC. The matrix switch, multiplexer and DVR all disappeared onto the desktop.

Not Just for the Fortune 500
Walk into an SOC today and it’s a far cry from “Houston, we have a problem.” You’ll likely find a moderate-size room operated by up to a half dozen people sitting at two or three consoles and controlling most functions from just a few graphical user interfaces (GUIs). How did we get to this point?

The lack of a single set of standards has led to the security industry to standardize on TCP/IP or ethernet for connectivity. This gives us the ability to share features, functionality and interoperability between different and formerly unconnected systems. It’s possible to control access, information security, CCTV, intrusion, building automation, asset management, fire alarms, and many other applications through one GUI.

This new SOC is based on flexible, scalable innovations that are available to mid-size and even smaller organizations. And with continued innovation and competition, initial investment prices will continue to come down, as will total cost of ownership. Today’s SOCs are dominated by a series of monitors that display the many separate CCTV views that must be watched. It is those views that will undergo the next round of innovation and change.

Focus on Surveillance Technology
The adoption of IT networking standards has opened the door for the next era of innovation in software—new flexible platforms, increased integration and advanced analytics.

At any given moment, more than 20 million cameras around the world collect data and transfer it back to security control rooms. It’s become accepted wisdom that there is far too much camera data being viewed and recorded and far too little intelligence being extracted. All this “potential” intelligence has provided ample motivation to focus on improving the collection and analysis of what cameras view. Advances are coming about from two directions: how we view what the camera sees and how we extract intelligence from the data. The latter group is what we call video analytics, and the former is represented by technology advances such as megapixel cameras and 360-degree immersive-view cameras.

360-degree cameras try to give the user a view we’ve not had before. Unfortunately, this technology generally produces low-resolution images using an existing image sensor technology to provide an enlarged view. The problem with this approach is that even a high-definition imager has far too few pixels to deliver the resolution provided by a conventional camera. The need for such a view is real, but the current implementation falls short of the goal.

The human visual expectation is an unfettered view of the world. CCTV technology was developed to bring us views of remote places, but it has never met the fundamental human visual expectation due to the technological limits of camera and display technologies. Over time, we have incrementally improved technology to create views that come closer to the human experience, but they still fall short. We continue to have to adapt the human view to the technology available.

The next major change coming to the security operations center takes us a big step closer to video surveillance that sees like we do.

The Next Big Thing
Referred to as camera or screen stitching, the newest innovation to transform the SOC is actually a culmination of three underlying advances: IP digital cameras, powerful image-processing software algorithms running on open-platform workstations, and large-screen display technologies. This technology is fundamentally different from megapixel or 360-degree camera technology.

Stitching can synthesize higher resolutions than existing high-definition standards because the composite display contains the pixel content of any number of cameras, including hi-def cameras. This permits the composite real-time scene to contain both the viewing angles and resolutions of whatever cameras are fed into the system.

Camera stitching creates views that match more precisely the normal human viewpoint. That means that in the SOC, the operator is no longer jumping from one camera view to the next, no longer panning or zooming across a large expanse to get the view he needs. Now he can see the complete image and zoom into any portion.

Consider how an IMAX movie is such a departure from the regular moviegoing experience. Similarly, screen stitching can take five cameras and create an entirely new viewing experience. But you don’t need a new theatre to do it or new cameras to record the film. Since it’s all accomplished by software extracting a brand new view from the same hardware, this solution can fit most budgets, particularly when one considers the increase in surveillance effectiveness and productivity.

More Than Just Stitching
For those who have not experienced camera stitched views, it would be easy to think of it as a simple panoramic scene in which several pictures have been overlapped. But that’s not the same thing. Advanced camera stitching technology enables the monitoring of a scene that has been re-built from the original, separate and disconnected camera views so that it appears you are watching an entire area from a birds-eye view.

The technology was developed to improve real-time situational awareness in the military and aerospace markets where the monitoring of fragmented views on multiple screens produced a lack of threat correlation and resulted in poor decision making at critical times. Traditional video monitoring uses each camera’s video data separately, resulting in fragmented surveillance. Stitching software processes camera information, finds logically connected content areas and creates a new viewing alignment, a multi-dimensional view of the scene rather than a single camera view. Such a view is unprecedented in that it combines local cameras, distantly located cameras, and non-overlapped cameras like those positioned between walls and above ceilings. Within the scene, objects or persons can be tracked across cameras, around bends and out of the building, and the tracking area can be zoomed.

Magnified Benefits
Camera stitching technology allows for a reduction in the number of monitors and a further reduced footprint in the security operations center. Operators have more effective, efficient ergonomics because new flat-panel monitors can be hung or mounted just about anywhere. Functionally, by taking in the new views, operators achieve a kind of instantaneous situational awareness. And where before the operator had to adapt and be trained on how to use his “periscope” view, now he knows how to use the stitched view almost automatically because it resembles natural human sight lines. Such new views also reduce space needed for training and procedures manuals because training time has been cut down significantly.

Installed and Working
A major airline is currently implementing camera stitching software at a control center in one of its terminals to monitor and manage aircraft movement at that terminal and a distant terminal. Upon seeing the software’s capabilities, the airline began considering plans to monitor and control aircraft at all three of its hub airports from one “virtual control tower.” This example demonstrates how SOCs are shrinking further.

Where once there would have been operations centers at both terminals and at the other two hub airports, the airline can envision a future where all their best people will be in a single location, potentially achieving better and more cost-effective management of their aircraft.

This shrinking of the SOC is not limited to only the largest of corporations. The cost of such software and the savings resulting from system effectiveness and concentrating hardware and personnel resources in one location make this solution feasible for mid-size organizations on up.

Advanced camera stitching software technology and its follow-on innovations promise to make real the idea of a virtual presence in a single location—something CCTV has promised since its inception. Now, finally, we have adapted the technology to our needs.

Ed Thompson is vice president of product management at DVTel. He has 22 years of product development/management experience and holds 10 U.S. and international product design patents in the field of security technologies. Previously, Mr. Thompson was director of technology development for Tyco/Sensormatic’s Video Products Division, where he was responsible for the development of Sensormatic’s Matrix Systems and dome camera product lines.