Security | Feature

Surveillance Jumps on the Network

Educational institutions were among the early adopters of IP-based video surveillance solutions because their scalability is so attractive. What anybody involved with campus security needs to know about the analog-to-IP transition.

Melissa Tebbenkamp, director of technology for Raytown Quality Schools in Raytown, MO, learned firsthand that there is both good news and bad when it comes to video surveillance system implementations.

The good news first: Her district superintendent recognized the need to upgrade older analog systems even in this era of ever-tightening budgets. He wasn't alone. In a 2010 survey by Campus Safety magazine, 42 percent of K-12 respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the quality and coverage of their current video surveillance systems.

Among the limitations of analog CCTV systems: the cost of installing cable to support and power them, especially on large campuses; the difficulty of scaling up; the lack of interoperability with other security systems; and the inability to provide access to authorized users in the field.

The better news is that internet protocol (IP) network-based cameras and digital video management software are maturing, and many issues surrounding them, including bandwidth, data storage, ease of use, and integration, are starting to become clearer. Prices are going down and the number of features is going up.

"Three years ago people might have still looked at analog systems, but that is not an option anymore," says Robert Grossman, an electronic security consultant based in Egg Harbor Township, NJ. "Everything is IP now."

That's why, in the last two years, the 22-campus Raytown district has gone from an analog CCTV system of 56 cameras that did a poor job of monitoring a few parking lots to make sure teachers' car tires weren't stolen to an IP-based system involving 500 cameras.

So what's the bad news? Even if putting cameras on your IP network makes sense now, many decisions still need to be made based on your school district's needs, including choices about network configuration, camera types, storage hardware, and video management software.

Tebbenkamp agrees with that. She acknowledges her initial research in the subject took more time than she thought it would.

 "We really did our due diligence," Tebbenkamp says. "On the project management side, we would definitely do it ourselves again, but it did take more of our internal resources than we initially thought."

Educational institutions were among the early adopters of IP-based video surveillance solutions because their scalability is so attractive. With the goal of expanding coverage in crucial areas such as stairwells, parking lots, cafeterias, and hallways, administrators struggled with the previous generation of analog systems, mainly because adding new cameras would involve a potentially expensive cabling project.

The initial price tag may be higher for IP-based systems than their analog counterparts, but IP systems can end up having a lower total cost of ownership when you consider scalability, better image quality, longer life span, and lower maintenance costs.

"One classic mistake is to look at the cost of an analog camera at $300 and an IP camera at $450 and say you can't afford the IP camera," says Fredrik Nilsson, general manager of Axis Communications, a vendor of video surveillance systems. "You have to look at the total cost of ownership. The larger the system gets, the more savings you will get out of IP."

Yet an existing system of analog cameras need not be abandoned. Many schools have older analog cameras tied to digital video recorders that can be incorporated into an IP network using encoders. The data is digitized and can be viewed alongside IP camera images. While you don't get the high resolution of IP cameras, the analog cameras should work fine in the new video management system. And additional cameras can easily be added to an IP network using Power over Ethernet (PoE)--the camera draws electricity through its Ethernet connection, eliminating the need for power outlets.

Two Key Issues in Making the Switch
Any school district considering a transition to IP-based video surveillance must pay close attention to two issues: bandwidth and data storage.

1) Bandwidth. Putting video cameras on a production network could have serious bandwidth implications. While some districts have hefty 10-gigabit backbones to their main buildings and few bandwidth concerns, other school districts have smaller data pipes and must pay attention to compression and variable bit rates to lessen the impact.

"If a school district has lots of locations, the killer is backhauling the data to monitor it from a central location," says Ron Walczak, principal consultant with Walczak Technology Consultants in Prospect, PA. In that situation schools tend to have storage at each location with access to it from the central hub, he explains. "Then you choose which hot spots you want to monitor and look at those 10 crucial camera views out of the 200 total to come across the wide-area network."

Paying attention to bit rates can also lessen the impact on the network. A constant bit rate can stream video at a fixed low level, such as 2 megabits per second. This mode is preferable where bandwidth is limited because the constant rate can be predefined, but image quality will vary with the amount of motion in a scene. Variable bit rate systems stream at a low rate when there is not much activity, "but when there are lots of people moving around, it bumps up to around 12 megabits per second," explains Honovich. "You have to make sure you have the capacity to handle the spike so it doesn't crash your network."

When evaluating IP cameras, you also need to consider resolution and file compression. The human eye normally sees motion at 22 frames per second (fps). Camera resolutions range from 4 or 5 fps all the way up to 30 fps, requiring much more bandwidth. "Camera manufacturers can promote their products as above 30 fps," says Walczak. "That's nice, but I don't need it. Think of all these megapixel cameras, transmitting at megabits-per-second rates. With dozens of them on a network, that could bring your network down."
Even if you don't opt for the clarity of megapixel cameras, you still should take steps to reduce the network load created by an IP-based video system. The key is compression. "By using H.264 compression, it reduces bandwidth needs by up to a factor of 10," says Walczak of the newest video-compression technology. "It really helps."

2) Data Storage. Most school districts tend to retain their video images for a month or more, which can require dozens of terabytes of storage. Organizations typically store video data on storage area networks (SANs) they already use for other purposes. Others set up SANs dedicated to storing video images. Storage is becoming less problematic as it gets cheaper. (You can find a 2-terabyte hard drive for $250.)

Raytown retains its video for only 10 days, but even that short time frame required upgrading to 40 terabytes of storage capacity, Tebbenkamp says. Again, using a compression scheme can cut down on the storage space required for video files.
There are some promising new developments in storage, such as "edge recording," where the recording is stored in the camera itself and the data is transmitted only during alerts or when an official wants to review a specific incident. This has appeal for schools with bandwidth concerns because the recording is independent of other network conditions, such as congestion and downtime.

But edge storage does cost more than centralized storage, and most video-management systems don't support edge devices yet. As a result, you either have to use the camera's web interface or pull a card from the camera to retrieve the video. "So far, edge storage is really rare, like 0.1 percent of the market," says Honovich. Another downside is that edge devices require more individual maintenance and the camera itself can be stolen.
Another possibility is cloud storage. Honovich dismisses it as a viable alternative right now, although this is likely to change in the future. At the moment, for both cost considerations and ease of management, he says a network video recorder (NVR) and local storage are better bets. And then there are security concerns, since images captured on cameras may ultimately have to be used in court proceedings.

"You may hear about an example or two," says Honovich of schools implementing a cloud solution, "but no one is doing it in reality."

Need Help?
Perhaps the first decision you will have to make in upgrading from analog to IP is whether you see this as a DIY project or something you'd rather outsource.
Consultants and integrators are basically an engineering department for hire, says Grossman, the security consultant. "You hire us because you don't have the expertise in-house or you don't have the time. If you are going to investigate this yourself, it can be a time sinkhole."

Not all consultants are created equal, though, and it pays to do due diligence before signing on the dotted line. Some system integrators are closely linked to certain manufacturers, for example, while some consultants too often take the safest route. "If a consultant is saying go with the same big vendor 80 percent of the time, it raises some red flags," says John Honovich, the founder of IP Video Market Info, a video surveillance information portal. He suggests looking for diversity and at how creative a consultant is when crafting solutions.

On the other hand, Tebbenkamp knew from the start of her district's $1.3 million project that she wanted to be in charge and that her team would keep the RFP process, project management, and vendor coordination in-house. "Some districts turn it over to a systems integrator, but I am not that type of person," Tebbenkamp says. "One of our goals was to be as hands-on as possible."

In the planning stages, Tebbenkamp's team asked vendors to describe how their systems would integrate with the other vendors Raytown was considering. "Poor answers to those questions shot down some of the vendors as possibilities," she adds.

Raytown evaluated seven brands of IP cameras before selecting Panasonic megapixel cameras because of their compression, image quality, and manageability. The school system looked at five video management applications and chose Genetec's Omnicast based on scalability, manageability, ease of use, and integration with door access control. Tebbenkamp now admits some help with making those initial decisions would have been beneficial.

Three Trends to Watch
1) Analytics. Many vendors tout their products' video-analytics capability. The newest generation of "smart" IP cameras can be set to send video clips to campus police only when their onboard software detects suspicious behavior, offering potential bandwidth savings.

Some cameras have motion detectors that automatically increase the frame rate when they detect movement. Others have tamper alarms to detect if someone spray paints or sticks gum on a camera, for example. Yet the analysts interviewed for this article agreed that the technology isn't quite ready for prime time. Some systems send too many false alarms and users ultimately turn the features off. "I have a PC with a webcam and video analytics that is supposed to recognize me so I don't have to enter a password all the time," says Robert Grossman, an electronic security consultant. "It works one in 10 times. By and large, people say they will come back to analytics in a few years."

2) Megapixel Cameras. While not new to the market, megapixel cameras still garner a lot of attention. They provide much higher resolution than traditional surveillance cameras, making them helpful in situations that require detailed images for identification purposes. They may have some performance issues in difficult lighting situations, however, and they also require careful balancing of network configuration, bandwidth, compression, and frame rates. Megapixel cameras are becoming less expensive every year, typically costing $50 to $100 more than other cameras. And some models require considerably less bandwidth and storage than earlier versions. 

3) Licensing Fees. Traditionally, analog CCTV system vendors didn't charge an ongoing maintenance fee because they were just selling cameras and a DVR. Now that video surveillance is more of a software solution, most video management software vendors charge about $300 per camera for a one-time licensing fee. Some now also charge an annual maintenance fee. Think twice before shelling out for this. "There are so many credible players that don't charge," says Honovich, "that even the ones that do are willing to negotiate about it. It is a good question to ask up front."

On the Wish List
Besides scalability, what are most medium-sized to large school districts looking for in a video surveillance upgrade? Those responsible for purchasing these systems tend to say they must balance technological sophistication with ease of use. The user interface must be straightforward enough for school administrators to grasp quickly.

Most also want the capability to monitor and record sound, which can provide a more complete picture of a situation, enabling administrators to better pinpoint parties involved in an incident such as a fight. Many school districts also seek to allow access to the cameras from outside of the network. Police officers can be given login credentials to view cameras from a laptop or smartphone before going into a building in response to an incident.

No matter what, in deploying any complicated new system, say consultants, the key is to avoid throwing users in at the deep end. "You may want to start with the basic package and a smaller feature set until your staff is up to speed--and then move up," advises Grossman.

IP Video Vendor Roundup
Links to the vendors and products mentioned here.

Avigilon sells an HD surveillance system, including control-center software and a wide range of megapixel cameras. The system can capture audio and video, and integrates with existing analog systems.

Axis Communications
Axis provides its Camera Station video management software to complement its range of network cameras. Video encoders allow integration with analog systems, and a Windows-based client permits remote viewing.

Genetec's Omnicast IP surveillance system is open platform, allowing users to connect analog and IP cameras from different vendors, scale as needed, and optimize bandwidth use. The system allows remote access, and video can be shared with police.

GVI Security
GVI Security is geared toward small to midsize entities requiring simple IP video surveillance solutions. Its product line includes AutoIP, an open-platform VMS, and a series of network video recorders, megapixel cameras, and video encoders.

Infinova touts its ability to integrate IP and analog systems, extending the life of existing equipment. It offers a range of megapixel and IP cameras, and its V2216 network VMS is a central management platform for network video systems of all sizes.

Lensec's Perspective VMS works with both IP and analog cameras, can share video images with authorities, and offers remote viewing with no client-side software installation. Its camera viewer provides virtual pan-tilt-zoom on any network camera.

Milestone Systems
Milestone's XProtect open platform supports IP cameras, encoders, and nonproprietary DVRs and NVRs from more than 80 different manufacturers. A remote client feature offers live view and playback from up to 16 cameras.

Panasonic System Networks
Panasonic markets a full range of IP video solutions, including megapixel and vandal-proof cameras. Its WV-ASM970 system management software is compatible with analog and IP network cameras.

Verint Systems
The Nextiva IP video management solution can support hybrid analog/IP configurations, and optimizes bandwidth use through compression and dual streaming capabilities. Verint also sells integrated analytics, IP cameras, encoders, and intelligent DVRs.

Video Insight
Video Insight sells a full suite of open-architecture IP video surveillance software, with a focus on school districts and higher ed. The software supports both analog and IP cameras, and provides map- and floor plan-based navigation.