NETWORK Expert: Cisco and the Great Drive to Convergence

Oct. 27, 2008

THE EVOLVING CONVERGENCE of physical security and information technology (IT) continues to change the landscape of manufacturers providing products and solutions.   Traditional IT vendors such as IBM, EMC and Hewlett-Packard all have products and initiatives to address the security market. Networking giant Cisco Systems, San Jose , Calif. , recently joined the fray with the potential to drive game-changing impacts.

A couple things make Cisco's security venture worth noting. Cisco has a successful history of convergence with other applications, and the company may be in a unique position to drive technical standards that can benefit the physical security industry.

The foundation of the Cisco physical security business is based on two acquisitions.   In March 2006 Cisco acquired SyPixx Networks, a Waterbury , Conn. , manufacturer of encoder products that bridge analog cameras with IP networks. In June 2007, Cisco acquired Broadware Technologies, Santa Clara , Calif. , a provider of open platform video management software. Together these two companies provide Cisco with a portfolio of products that include video encoders, decoders, recording platforms and video management software that is compatible with third party network cameras and video encoders.   

Will Cisco change the game?

Will Cisco forever change the security game? Time will tell. The combined physical security organization is part of Cisco's Emerging Markets Technology Group (EMTG). The EMTG is responsible for incubating Cisco's future billion-dollar businesses.    In addition to physical security, the unit includes businesses that are developing IP solutions for emergency communications interoperability, the TelePresence meeting and communication system, and Cisco Digital Signage, a comprehensive solution for centralized management and publishing of on-premise digital signage displays.

According to Bob Beliles , senior manager of Marketing for Cisco's Physical Security business, the company has actively seeded the group with people from the network side of the house. According to Beliles , this infuses new ways of thinking into the development of the security products. Beliles himself was with the IP telephony group at Cisco and he views networked video as much more than a “pipe” to transmit video from point A to   B .   According to Beliles , Cisco prefers to view the network as a “platform” that integrates security with other systems such as building applica tions, telephony and business systems.  

Guido Jouret , chief technology officer (CTO) of Cisco's Emerging Markets Technology Group believes that networking will change physical security by “taking proprietary and closed systems and moving them to standards-based environments like Ethernet and storage area networks.”   Building security solutions on standards-based components will allow Cisco's integration partners to move “up the value chain” by focusing not on connectivity and storage, but on the end user applications that solve business problems.

What makes Cisco's view noteworthy is that Cisco took a similar view of office telephony in the late 1990s, investing in that business when PBX and Key Telephone Systems dominated the market for enterprise telephony.   In 2004, the worldwide sales of IP Telephony systems exceeded those of traditional analog PBX systems and never looked back.   According to projections by IMS Research, Austin , Texas and security industry analyst firm J.P. Freeman Co. Inc., Newtown , Conn. , a similar crossover will occur when network camera shipments exceed those of analog cameras for video surveillance and security applications.   It's not a matter of if but when the actual crossover happens.

The factors that drove enterprise telephony systems to IP are similar to those driving the convergence of security.   The first convergence wave realizes operational and capital cost savings by leveraging a single infrastructure.   The next waves of convergence enhance value and productivity by integrating disparate applications.   In the IP telephony domain, the integrations resulted in new features and services such as unified messaging (single in-box of voice mail, e-mail and fax) and remote call centers.    Cisco anticipates that security and safety systems will make the leap from cost centers to value generation as these systems are integrated with enterprise business functions such as point-of-sale, building control and enterprise resource planning systems.

Going to market

So will Cisco view physical security as a pure IT function and channel its products through its current base of 30,000 IT channel partners?   Not necessarily.   Cisco's channel partners won't have access to the physical security products without a demonstrated history of successful security installations. Cisco's Authorized Technology Provider Program has established requirements for integration partners that include both demonstrated networking expertise and reference security installations.   The program recognizes the value of “hard to teach” skills in the security profession while establishing requisite technology skills in IP networking. Established IT-oriented businesses may find they will need to partner with an established security business that understands the market.

One of the current challenges of convergence is the lack of shared standards among the manufacturers of network devices.   Network cameras, encoders and access control devices typically have unique programming interfaces from manufacturer to manufacturer.   This means that security management software compatible with cameras from Axis is not necessarily compatible with Sony cameras.   Software providers must write unique interfaces to each camera vendor, spending cost and resources on an integration task that doesn't add a great deal of overall value.

One of Cisco's initiatives is to lead the creation of a standard that will allow network-based security devices to interoperate.   Currently an internal effort, Cisco plans to collaborate with partners to define a network-level API (Application Programming Interface).   According to Dennis Charlebois , director of Product Management at Cisco, vendor collaboration will be the key to the initiative's success.   Charlebois noted that the goals are “not about the standard itself, but the adoption of the standard.”

High expectations

The security industry has high expectations for Cisco.   As Charlebois pointed out, “people don't expect ‘me-too' products from Cisco.”   The expectation is indeed high for Cisco to show that it can do more than provide a better video encoder or video software product.   The measurement stick is whether Cisco can execute to combine the SyPixx and Broadware products into a well-integrated, harmonious solution, provide leadership to drive network standards for physical security and accomplish its vision of establishing the network as a platform for physical security.

Tom Galvin of NetVideo Consulting is a network video specialist. NetVideo Consulting ( provides consulting services and product evaluations that enable successful networked video solutions.