IP Surveillance: Foggy on the Cloud

Jan. 15, 2015
The transition from analog to IP surveillance is moving forward, but cloud-based systems may not be quite ready for prime time

Conversations about moving to IP and cloud surveillance networks inevitably deliver varying opinions on when and how to transition. While the benefits of leaving analog behind are clear — greater interoperability and simplified management among them — for most end-users, it comes down to identifying the best and most cost-effective path to digital for their situations.

There is no question that network convergence is here today, but plenty of questions remain about what to replace and how to get there — particularly when it comes to the cloud. And while there is no perfect answer for end-users, systems integrators, dealers and technology manufacturers are making advances toward simplifying the transition.

Brad Ehlert, president of Utah-based systems integration firm Ehlert Solutions Group, is encouraged by recent maturity of IP and cloud technology.  Ehlert’s company is especially active in the education sector, and he points to the growing convergence of IP video surveillance and access control as a sign of progress. He sees more access control suppliers incorporating live video, while IP video surveillance suppliers are building in access control functionality.

While Ehlert says developments like these are substantial, it is not enough for his customers. “There’s definitely progression happening, and in the security industry, this is visible through a variety of different solutions crossing the surveillance architecture,” Ehlert explains. “From a big picture perspective, our customers are asking for more integration. There needs to be a lot more progression to achieve that integrated environment that people have been talking about for years.”

The barrier as Ehlert sees it has much to do with simplifying integration through multiple vendor solutions. “Our customers want the ability to easily integrate a panic button in the classroom with their video and access control systems,” Ehlert says. “This way, access to the building is locked and video feeds are rolling when a panic button is triggered. They want to make sure that transitioning to IP and the cloud eliminates having to manage these processes across different systems. That is where the value lies.”

While the benefits are clear, accelerating the transition will come down to creating solutions for all budgets that also address IP camera costs, bandwidth challenges, reliable network connections, total cost of ownership and other operational considerations. And it appears that this will be far more challenging for integrators tasked with building out cloud-based systems.

Analog Sun Has Not Set

“Based on the conversations I have with our customers, a large majority are still buying analog cameras,” says Johannes G. Rietschel, chairman of Barix, an IP audio and control specialist. Barix audio surveillance solutions are often deployed with VMS systems from companies like Milestone Systems, which support both analog and IP cameras to ease transitions.           

“It is astonishing, but recent estimates I have seen put analog camera purchases significant higher than IP cameras,” Rietschel says. “A lot of businesses aren’t ready to make that investment — one, because it is a much higher upfront expense, and two, there is still a reliability question, especially when it comes to cloud-based services.”

Ehlert stresses that the challenges of cloud surveillance multiply as camera counts rise. He believes there are serious pain points to the cloud environment that cannot be fixed by current solutions on the market. “It’s a question of how an enterprise with 200 cameras on site, all recording high-definition video, can stream that to the cloud,” Ehlert explains. “It means dedicating an enormous amount of network bandwidth just for a security application, which requires a large monetary investment. I don’t see this as a huge value proposition for a large corporation or an educational institution. There are more cost-effective ways to monitor multiple locations over IP through direct connections.”

Rietschel believes that investing in lower-cost IP cameras makes more sense for businesses with limited budgets. This starts the process of migrating video systems onto the local network while keeping costs manageable, and allows end users to explore their current capabilities and limitations for expanding IP-based surveillance to the cloud.

“The big question to ask yourself is whether your network connection is fast and reliable enough to stream and record real-time video,” Rietschel says. “Operating a cloud service means having to upload content. If you have to support a Megabit stream, you need a Megabit upload stream. Most ADSL connections are limited to 256k, which is perfect for audio surveillance in the cloud but falls short on the video side. And beyond that, bandwidth itself is very expensive — especially when it comes to video. Even with a bandwidth-rich connection, most end customers will need to offset those bandwidth costs somehow. That makes lower-end IP cameras an attractive proposition as a starting point.”

Accelerating the Transition

According to Sri L. Palasamudrum, CEO of mobiDEOS, the cost of conversion is clearly slowing the migration. His company is working to alleviate the cost and bandwidth concerns of transitioning to IP and the cloud through a new platform called UCNE, which he claims can accommodate transitions for about one-quarter the price of similar systems.

An acronym for Universal Cloud and Network Enabler, UCNE features an ONVIF-compatible video encoder to bring analog systems onto the network, including cameras and DVRs. Palasamudrum notes that UCNE brings 1,000 cameras onto the network, compared to other video encoding systems that transition 250 at the same price. The company additionally touts simplified connectivity to VMS systems, access control technologies and other surveillance components, including video walls. The technology also incorporates automatic redundant backup architecture to minimize bandwidth usage, reducing costs while increasing reliability.

However, Palasamudrum’s chief concern is that end-users have an opportunity to truly evaluate their needs. He points to the network configuration, labor and software costs of transitioning from analog to IP cameras, which he claims can run at least ten times higher than retrofitting existing analog cameras.

 In fact, he thinks that analog cameras retrofitted for IP systems is the smarter move, especially for what he calls “low-range applications.” He sees little reason why a facility well-served by analog cameras would want to incur the equipment and labor costs associated with going to all-IP cameras — at least in the short run. “There aren’t many businesses out there that can afford to forklift an entire analog CCTV system at once,” he says. “As a result, many businesses hold back for budgeting reasons. They are looking at how much it costs to upgrade each component, as opposed to a retrofit of existing components. Therefore, it is prudent to retrofit analog with IP capabilities wherever the existing analog camera's resolution meets customer needs. The sooner they retrofit, the sooner they can enjoy the benefits of IP.”

Among those benefits, according to Palasamudrum, is a more comprehensive approach to video analytics and redundant backup of video. He points to an ability to immediately back up video at a safe location, ensuring that footage is available even if the local DVR is destroyed. “You can’t do that efficiently or inexpensively with analog video,” he says. “It is just one example of how investing in IP brings more value. Our intention is to help integrators cost-effectively move end-users into the IP environment on local area networks, and prepare them for a future in the cloud — which is where they will ultimately enjoy a higher return on investment.””

Addressing Sticker Shock

Steven Paley, president and CEO of Florida-based systems integrator Rapid Security Solutions LLC, thinks that while the idea of specifying existing components into an IP system makes sense, his main concern would be the potential limiting effect on the overall operation. “I think a business would need to be extremely careful about how much money they are willing to spend to utilize existing equipment,” Paley says.

“I work with one manufacturer that can take 16 channels of analog video, and bring it onto the network with built-in storage for $1,600,” he continues. “Technically, the user still needs a solution to record the video. Do we spend the money in maintaining an existing DVR, or do we invest in something that’s a more network-centric solution? If the goal is to truly go in the direction of the cloud, it makes more sense to transition them to a single, integrated network solution that opens up greater possibilities.”

That said, Paley isn’t all that bullish about the cloud in the short run. For one, he doesn’t believe the financial metrics are quite there, citing bandwidth expenses and high prices of equipment. And similar to the concerns that Rietschel of Barix has raised, he is leery of unreliable Internet connections and the adverse effect lost connections would have on his customers.

“If your connection at a remote site goes down, so goes your visibility of the local appliance that supplies the camera feeds,” Paley says. “Maintaining the system and its interoperability all of the sudden becomes inherently difficult, with management reliant on pulling data from onboard camera storage or SD cards. There needs to be real reliability and efficiency, and it has to be more affordable. It is not quite ready for prime time, and the pricing is not there.”

Paley adds that for most of his clients, it’s far more financially attractive for his company to install a non-cloud-based networked video system, and provide quarterly preventative maintenance as part of the package. He is also bullish on interactive video monitoring services that bundle IP cameras and video analytics with audio surveillance capability, allowing personnel to interact live with visitors and perpetrators over a VoIP connection.

“For now, we’re educating our clients on IP and the benefits of having a software-based video surveillance solution,” Paley says. “We are more likely to go into a business with an existing analog system, replace the DVR with an NVR, add some storage, and then gradually replace the existing cameras. It is really about establishing a bridge to the future.”

Ehlert adds that he believes manufacturers like mobiDEOS, Milestone Systems and Barix will go a long way in driving cloud momentum by working together, establishing interoperability and supplying truly integrated solutions to integrators and end users. “Manufacturers are starting to really see the bigger picture of a true integrated solution,” Ehlert says. “They need to keep driving toward a solution that will apply to a large cross-section of end users: an easily manageable, cohesive environment that cost-effectively moves video and audio to a centralized point. We’re just not quite there yet.”

Brian Galante is president of Dimension PR. He is a published author on topics including security, professional AV, broadcasting, digital signage and transportation.