CCTV Test: Vista Qulu VMS

In recent years, the popularity of VMS solutions has increased at a phenomenal rate. Installers and integrators recognise that the advanced functionality and additional benefits on offer from such packages equates to enhanced profits and increased customer satisfaction. These software packages can offer a high degree of flexibility, simplifying the creation of bespoke solutions. The arguments for selecting VMS over hardware alternatives are compelling, but does Vista’s VMS – Qulu – deliver the right level of performance?

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he rise in popularity of the VMS software package has been slow but consistent in recent years. The growth has also been predictable to anyone involved in the design and implementation of innovative surveillance solutions. For those who have made the move to VMS-based solutions, or indeed have a good knowledge of the flexibility on offer, the increased demand for this advanced software is understandable.

It is true that in the past, software-based video solutions weren’t exactly flavour of the month with many installers and integrators. Some software packages were clumsy and complex, and many were designed for IT managers rather than security professionals.

Additionally, whilst many focused on surveillance functionality, they were marketed more as a situational awareness tool, which somewhat concealed their true potential.

However, it is also true that in the past creating a scalable and flexible video solution wasn’t always possible or practical due to constraints in technology. While digital video systems could offer much of the performance required for advanced surveillance, there were still some vital features and functions that could not be delivered. However, in recent years the full ‘toolkit’ needed to create such solutions has become widely available.

Few installers and integrators who gain experience with a VMS platform ever move back to a hardware-based infrastructure for the majority of their applications. The reason is simple; once you experience the depth of possibilities available from a VMS, the limitations of hardware become too obvious. Not only does hardware hamper overall system design, but it limits profitability too.

There is also the small matter that whenever a VMS-based solution is pitched –  based on functionality – against a hardware solution, the end user inevitably will choose the VMS option. This has nothing to do with price or a preference for any type of technology. It is simply because the flexibility on offer from a VMS package delivers a better system, with many features that end users demand being included. The real-world benefits which the end-user can realise are just too desirable to make a hardware-based system a realistic option.

Since they were first launched into the security sector, VMS solutions have advanced beyond all recognition. The open platform approach has seen true third-party device support become a reality, unlike the so-called shared standard specifications. Through licensed drivers, the VMS providers have had a significant impact by integrating with products from the vast majority of professional equipment suppliers. The leading VMS packages support thousands of cameras and encoders from hundreds of specialist manufacturers. In addition, the speed of updates allows the very latest devices to be supported as soon as they are launched, advanced event and alarm handling has been simplified to a point where system performance has been elevated, and additional functionality delivers genuine return on investment.

Installation and configuration has been made simpler, licensing is now more cost-effective than ever, and economies of scale realised by the use of off-the-shelf hardware devices and peripherals makes VMS-based video surveillance extremely competitive.

It is into this exciting and rapidly expanding market that Vista has launched Qulu, its VMS offering.

Specification
Qulu is billed as an advanced VMS. It supports an unlimited amount of devices (obviously the capacity is restricted by the capabilities of the server). It can be run on PC and Linux platforms. Support for OS X extends to a viewing application only. Licensing is per number of supported devices. Licenses can be purchased for a single device, or in packs of 10, 20, 50 or 100 licenses.

The software does support a number of the leading camera manufacturers. There is also support for de-warping with some 360° cameras.

It should be noted that with many of the supported brands, only a small number of devices are actually listed as compatible – in some cases it’s just one device. This means that rather than checking if manufacturers are included on the compatibility list, as is the case with most VMS products, it is vital to ensure which specific devices are included.

As with other VMS packages, Vista is likely to embark on a programme of driver creation; this should facilitate the use of a larger number of devices. However, at present, the variety of third-party cameras and encoders supported by Qulu falls short of those offered by the other leading VMS solutions, and is on a par with the type of support typically offered by hardware devices.

Recording can be continuous, scheduled, on event or on motion. Each channel can be individually configured. Recordings are claimed to handle any codec or format available from supported cameras. Audio recording is also supported. Once recording schedules are established, these may be assigned to multiple cameras.

When managing live or recorded footage, Qulu offers seamless playback. Support for video walls delivers a decent degree of flexibility, and the operator’s task is simplified through the use of telemetry control and video exports via the GUI. Event notifications can be flagged via icons and visual identifiers. The system also offers a variety of search options including smart and motion search. There are also the traditional search tools such as timeline, event log, time/date and thumbnail search.

Qulu does offer a Rule Manager feature which enables email notifications of events, alongside other notifications. Alarm alerts are delivered in real-time. Alarms can be generated by motion in the camera view, camera disconnection, storage or network failure, an IP conflict, input activation from a device, or a media server issue. The event source can be specified as the system itself, all devices attached to a server, specified devices or a single unit.

Alarm actions depend upon the nature of the event, and can include edge recording, recording at the server, triggering device outputs, push notifications and visual and audible alerts; all events are also logged. Recipients of any notifications can also be specified, as can intervals between subsequent alerts.

The VMS supports video motion detection; this can be set as VMD on the device, or via the VMS itself. The system specifications also list Forensic Zoom and Forensic Spyglass as other smart features. The Forensic Zoom function simply allows easy digital zoom in any of the viewed windows. The latter Forensic Spyglass function allows virtual zoom boxes to be drawn in any portion of the image, and these can then be displayed as separate video streams. This feature obviously has more benefits when used with high megapixel overview cameras or 360° devices.

With regard to camera screen display, Qulu does not use fixed formats. Instead, a drag-and-drop interface allows individual screens to be scaled to best suit the needs of the operator.

Installation
Qulu is provided as a single installable package, and the installation process is relatively straightforward. There is an option during set-up to automate the process of finding and configuring cameras. We selected this option, and once the installation was complete, the software found most of the attached cameras. These included several devices which were not listed as supported. However, they are relatively new models from leading manufacturers, so our guess was that the list isn’t up-to-date.

With the devices which were not found automatically, we managed to use the settings menu to add one of the units. However, some cameras from supported manufacturers simply could not be added. Whilst these admittedly are not on the Qulu compatibility list, they are well-established and credible cameras.

The menu structure in Qulu is fairly straightforward, and contextual menus are used. This does mean that settings for the system and the devices are separate, and at times that isn’t the most convenient option. That said, the menus are straightforward, and we don’t foresee anyone with competency in video surveillance struggling with the set-up.

The software interface has clearly been designed for a minimalist look, and whilst this keeps things clean for the operator it does mean that you will find yourself referring to the manual to find how certain functions and features can be controlled. The downloadable installer for Qulu does not include the manual; this needs to be downloaded separately from the Vista website.

The screen layout does not conform to the traditional surveillance system grid. When cameras are added the streams are simply dragged and dropped. These can then be scaled, relocated and even rotated to suit the needs of any given site. There is a high degree of flexibility and for many this will be seen as a benefit. Indeed, Vista majors on this feature as a part of the promotion for Qulu.

Performance
Once up and running it is time to configure Qulu. Whilst the basics have been made simple, it is when you get into the specific configurations that comparisons are made with other VMS software offerings. With regard to configuration of supported devices, you do not have direct access to full camera functionality. Whilst this is typical with many NVRs, a large number of the leading VMS packages do allow access to the full features of supported devices. Where they do not, there is often the option to open the device’s webpage in a pop-up window. Qulu does not offer this.

With cameras configured to deliver real-time video streams at either HD or one megapixel resolutions, the displayed streams were generally good and showed high quality. However, there were a few dropped frames, and in some scenes with fast motion this was obvious. Video delivery was acceptable if considered against hardware options.

We looked at video motion detection via the VMS rather than the devices, and it was a touch hit and miss. It was compatible with the accuracy you’d expect from VMD integrated into a mainstream NVR. Light level changes caused spurious alerts, and a lack of adjustability with regard to discriminations meant this functionality could not compete with the leading VMS packages. Also, with regard to rule management, Qulu lacks the depth of flexibility which has become synonymous with VMS systems.

In a more positive light, where Qulu does impress is with regard to flexibility related to the GUI. The use of zoom windows is simple to implement. From an operator’s point of view, Qulu is easy-to-use, flexible and intuitive. It is obvious that a greater emphasis has been put on user interaction than the delivery of core security features.

When the Benchmark team looks at a new VMS, we inevitably discover different ways in which it can be applied, and this highlights benefits that can be offered to the end-user. With Qulu, time was spent trying to deliver the type of functionality which we associate with VMS.

Verdict
As is the case with many new VMS solutions, Qulu offers a basic video management and recording package which is equivalent to that on offer from mainstream hardware-based devices. It does deliver additional benefits with regard to video display and playback, but would be improved if rules management was further enhanced. A higher degree of detection and analytics functionality would elevate the package to be more in line with other VMS offerings in terms of security performance.

The variety of third-party devices supported will be improved, as will other elements of the system. Because it is still early in the product’s development, it would not be fair to dismiss Qulu out of hand. Certainly it is in a stronger position than some software options, but with regard to the leading VMS packages, the offering from Vista needs further development.

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