Balancing the price/performance ratio
There is often an attitude in the security market that installers and integrators will take one of two approaches: either systems will be based entirely on the lowest cost products, or only high-end branded equipment will be specified. The reality is that neither approach could be considered best practice. It is important to deliver the performance expected by the customer, but it is also vital that solutions remain within budget. Benchmark considers the best way to balance the price/performance ratio.
For some installers and integrators, there is a divide between low-cost devices and higher end branded equipment. For some, security products aimed at more budget-conscious applications are deemed to be inferior in terms of performance and functionality. For others, the higher end products are simply more expensive because you are paying for a name. Of course, this thinking is not limited to the security systems market.
It could be argued that there is some truth in both attitudes. However, it could equally be argued that there are a fair few exceptions to the rule. One engineer’s low cost product might be another’s high end choice! The issue of cost, and more importantly of value, is not simple. Most people tend to end up with their own individual parameters, with established ‘levels’ which they will neither dip below nor rise above.
Looking at products based solely upon price is complex, and as a result some engineers are loathe to mix-and-match when designing systems. However, given the expanded functionality that is increasingly found in various products, predominantly due to significant boosts in affordable processing power, such an approach may be adding unnecessary costs to a number of systems. What is required is a balanced approach, and the balancing point must be based upon the operational requirement of any given site.
Low-cost or cheap?
Before considering the best way to maximise system performance whilst maintaining a strict control of available budgets, it is important to differentiate between low-cost and cheap devices. The two are not the same, and boundaries can, at times, be blurred.
Unfortunately, there is not a simple formula that can be applied when selecting devices. Often installers and integrators will have to make choices based upon their experiences (and those of their peers), the level of trust they place upon certain brands and a degree of common sense.
There are a few old sayings that are still in common use, because they include a healthy dose of truth. The first is, ‘if something seems too good to be true, it probably is’. The security market has a somewhat lax attitude to specification sheets due to measurements not being standardised many years ago. As such, it’s not uncommon to see cameras with headline bullet points such as 1920 x 1080 resolution, 25fps, WDR, super low light performance, etc.. With a quality device, that’s easily achieved, but with something that costs a fraction of typical cameras, you may find on closer examination that you can’t have all these features at the same time!
Another old saying is, ‘if it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck’. If the specification and price of a device don’t add up, or if the manufacturer’s claims don’t make sense, or if the product is simply being over-hyped, the chances are that you may have problems in the field. Any cost savings will have to be created by the manufacturer, and there are several ways of doing this.
A number of reputable and well-established manufacturers will produce ranges of low-cost equipment. Whilst this is designed to a specific price-point, the core security functions will always be maintained. Often the price is achieved by either removing certain features aimed at a minority of applications, or alternatively economies of scale will be applied. An example of the latter approach is to create a range which incorporates a number of shared components.
Cheap products, on the other hand, could achieve the price-point with manufacturers cutting corners in terms of component quality or product testing. Also, after-sales support is not cheap, and if no support is offered this could enable prices to be dropped, which is fine until you have a problem. Whilst low-cost products may cost the same as cheap products, the two are very different! The golden rule for installers and integrators should always be to stick with established brands and ensure that the companies they purchase from have the resources to offer support and backup.
The operational requirement will typically dictate where costs can and cannot be saved. Because today’s cameras, NVRs and VMS packages – plus a growing number of peripheral devices – can offer smart functionality, it does allow installers and integrators to design a system for maximum efficiency. For example, if you are using video analytics, does it make financial sense to pay for analytics at the camera and the VMS or NVR? If critical points around the site are protected with HD or 4K UHD cameras, do other devices in less critical areas need to also boast high resolutions?
The operational requirements, combined with a risk assessment, will identify the best approach to any security deployment. How do the criteria set by the user dictate system design, and where can redundancies of functionality be avoided? If analytics are best implemented at the edge, then there is little need for the video management system – whether software- or hardware-based – to also offer in-depth analytics. Maybe a smart search function would be desirable, but other analytics options are already taken care of at the camera.
Similarly, if centralised analytics are best for the site, then all you want from a camera is the ability to send back images of the appropriate frame rate, resolution and quality. Additional features add cost, and if they’re not being deployed (or are duplicated at several stages of the system) this isn’t always a cost-effective measure.
It could be argued that end users change their minds about requirements, or don’t fully think through the design of the system and how it will be used on a day-to-day basis, that isn’t an argument to opt for a system with specification over-kill. Most end users will want the best of everything, but will then baulk at the cost. All too often, they’ll then switch to the worst of everything to reduce the price. This makes some installers and integrators believe that all end users want is the lowest price possible!
Looking at camera resolutions, many end users want HD or 4K UHD throughout a site. This decision isn’t based on security; it’s a throwback to the excellent job that has been done by the consumer market with regard to upselling. How many people with 4K UHD televisions watch a lot of 4K content?
In security applications, the role of video can be split into two main groups: identification and surveillance. Identification has to produce video that is capable of providing – with absolute certainty – evidential footage that will establish exactly who a suspect is. Surveillance video provides information for continuity. It establishes that Suspect A went down a certain corridor and entered a specific space after entering the building. If a high resolution camera captures an image of the suspect as they enter the site or pass through a secure area, then lower resolution devices can be deployed where only general surveillance for continuity is required.
Most manufacturers will offer HD720p cameras as a part of their range, and whilst options may be limited, if you are simply looking for video to provide continuity these can deliver good performance from a cost-effective package. If the smarter functionality is being provided by the VMS or NVR, there should be no issues with these devices which, as general demand decreases, will be less developed in terms of advanced functionality.
This shortfall in processing will not be an issue if the selected VMS or NVR does include smart options. Indeed, where ONVIF support is being used, it could be argued that using cameras purely for video capture is a more robust option.
If you opt for smarter cameras, then a growing number of basic archiving and management systems are available. These include edge-based archiving options. Many manufacturers of NVRs and NAS devices offer a software-based management system, and these are often free-of-charge. They typically do limit connectivity to devices from the manufacturer, but allow cost-effective archiving solutions to be created. This also allows systems to be expanded easily when necessary without replacing legacy devices.
The use of legacy systems obviously enables previous investments in security to be leveraged, and this always helps where budgets are tight. Of course, in many applications the legacy systems may not have enough processing power to offer smart functionality, but this isn’t an issue if existing systems are supplemented with newer devices as and when additional features are required.
Flexibility in today’s market is a key benefit for installers and integrators, and network-based systems can increasingly make use of a wide range of infrastructure. This allows creative design practices to deliver enhanced solutions both in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. When the right balance is achieved, systems can offer both high performance and meet even tight budgets without compromising on the level of protection offered.
Legacy coax can not only be used for LAN connectivity, but can additionally reduce the amount of IT-based equipment if appropriate long range switches are used. Equally, redundant UTP and Wi-Fi are increasingly available for many modern solutions.
Just as adopting an approach where everything specified is at the lowest cost isn’t ideal, it must also be accepted that looking solely at premium products will see budgets exceeded. Neither route will deliver a system which meets all of a user’s expectations.
Balance is key, and when combined with the operational requirements installers and integrators can ensure that duplication of functionality does not take place. Smart technologies are making the security market more flexible and adding value. However, not every part of a system needs to be smart. The achieved results are more important, and additional features will be wasted if a simpler approach can deliver what is needed.
Installers and integrators should view each location individually, and design and implement the right solution based upon operational requirements. If this is done with care and creativity, cost savings will naturally occur.