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System Design

‘Plug-and-Play’ CCTV need not be entry-level!

The term ‘plug-and-play’ has its roots in the IT sector and consumer-based computing. The idea behind this approach was to simplify device discovery and configuration, allowing peripherals such as mice, keyboards, printers and disk drives to be added without a need for complex device management. The term is also frequently used in the security sector, and is commonly associated with entry-level products. Benchmark considers the role of plug-and-play CCTV systems to see whether installers and integrators are missing a trick.

The quest for ‘plug-and-play’ functionality has existed in the security industry for longer than the phrase has existed! Even in the days proceeding cost-effective personal computing, one of the often-made marketing claims was ‘ease of installation’. Some manufacturers went as far as claiming that the installation process was so simple that a secretary in their office had set up the system with ease! Whilst such statements were clearly condescending, it often raised the question as to whether the secretaries were fully trained engineers! In truth, it mattered not whether devices were simple or complex in terms of configuration: ease of installation was a must-have bullet point on spec sheets.

The drive for a simpler approach to configuration is more prevalent in the video surveillance sector. Many refer back to the days of analogue video systems. Back then all devices worked together, unless you ended up specifying some very strange or poorly designed products. A Brand X camera would sit happily alongside a Brand Y model, all recording video to a Brand Z DVR.

It is interesting that when people look back at analogue interfaces with some fondness, they forget the limiting infrastructure, the technological cap on performance, the compromises which had to be made to manage sites with multiple cameras, the lack of flexibility and the investment in time running individual cables (and difficult-to-handle cables at that) for every individual connected device.

Whilst analogue video surveillance systems did undoubtedly offer simplicity in terms of device discovery – you plugged a unit in and generally it was recognised and added to the system – it was one benefit amongst a sea of compromises. In short, the trade-off simply wasn’t worth it. The same situation exists today with analogue-based systems.

Because the concept of plug-and-play was born out of computing, it is therefore natural that those manufacturing digital solutions will look to the technology as a tool for simplifying installation and eliminating time-consuming processes. They are also able to learn lessons from past attempts to implement auto-discovery in the IT sector.

With regards to computing, the challenge was always to deal with a wide range of variables. Even when using identical hardware, software and operating systems, one individual might configure their PC differently to another.

Throw in a variety of options with regard to connected devices and it’s small wonder that plug-and-play was more commonly referred to as plug-and-pray.

Eventually Microsoft pushed others down the route of auto-discovery by simply not supporting devices which required individual specific drivers. Its position in the IT sector gave it the power to force such change; the security industry lacks a corporate entity with the clout to push the implementation of plug-and-play systems in a similar way.

As a result of the multiple variables that can affect video surveillance systems, many plug-and-play systems tend to either be single brand solutions, or the manufacturer will work with a handful of selected partners. Some see this approach as limiting, others as sensible. The bottom line is that if plug-and-play system design is to deliver on its promise, some control over the supported devices needs to be established, and for many a single brand approach is the simplest way to do this.

Entry-level?
There is a general perception that plug-and-play systems are aimed at the entry-level market. Whilst many are, such thinking doesn’t allow for the full potential of the technology to be appreciated.

One reason that this perception exists is because of marketing. Manufacturers recognise that many making the migration to new platforms want the benefits inherent in networked solutions, but need some time and support to get up to speed with the vagaries of the technologies. There is also an argument that if a surveillance system is required urgently, the technology provides a quick fix.

There are other solutions aimed at the entry-level market which promise ease of installation and the ability to allow a rapid installation. Many of these are based around either analogue technology or coaxial infrastructure. However, they can’t always offer longevity, and for many installers and integrators, the relationship with end user customers is based upon on-going system development.

As video surveillance trends see increased demand for HD quality as a de facto standard, networked solutions provide an on-going development path. Despite this, a number of so-called ‘alternatives’ to the technology appeared in the market. Some of these were confusing and created issues for any installers and integrators that opted for their use.

For example, consider 960H. Whilst it was billed as being higher resolution than 4CIF video, it wasn’t. It just had a slightly wider image. Implementation of a 960H solution required the replacement of cameras, recorders and monitors (and lenses if you’re being a purist) if the additional image width was to be appreciated. If all the elements were not changed, then the final image was still 4CIF. The only elements of the system retained were cabling and PSUs.

End users who were sold 960H replaced the majority of legacy system elements in exchange for barely discernable improvements. What they bought into was a very short-term solution. Try to find 960H devices from the established professional brands today and you’ll see how limited it is.

In fact, 960H was very quickly replaced by 1280H and HD-SDI. Both were sold as different versions of the future, and both faded as quickly as they appeared. If an end user opted to upgrade to any of these technologiess, they received a limited choice for future upgrades or developments. The systems might have offered ease of installation for those fitting them, but the customer ended up with a system that didn’t really represent the promised ‘future’.

These were followed by a host of analogue-based HD technologies, and already some earlier versions of this technology are disappearing.

Whilst the ‘ease of installation’ marketing message remains strong, the technologies themselves are often limited by the use of old infrastructure. Some do not record standard-compliant HD video on every channel (or indeed on any channels). System topologies are formulaic, making the design of a bespoke solution more complex. In some cases legacy infrastructure turns out to be unsuitable.

The technologies at the heart of these systems can change frequently. Much of the ‘churn’ in the market has to do with cost.

For those who opted to embrace the benefits of networked solutions, the outcome is very different. The technology has continued to develop and attracts a growing number of new devices, and it has actually improved – and continues to do so – over time. The networked market boasts a number of plug-and-play solutions which are ideal for the entry-level market. However, considering them as limited to that market seriously misses many of the benefits on offer and the potential for upgrades and expansions!

Added value
The first consideration with any security device or system is to assess what is the end user’s requirements. For many modern systems, the core requirement for video surveillance is the ability to deliver, record and manage HD video streams, including allowing remote access. There are plenty of networked plug-and-play systems which can do just that as standard.

Ensuring that systems are delivered in a cost-effective manner is important, and again networked plug-and-play systems can tick the right boxes. Most utilise PoE which eliminates the need for the installation of fused spurs at device locations, as well as the cost of PSUs. This also further enhances the ease of installation, as do the growing number of units which support DNS services. These allow simplified remote connectivity.

At the heart of networked plug-and-play CCTV systems are the auto-discovery and configuration functions. Whilst these simplify the installation process, the systems do allow full access to the networking settings. This enables the installer or integrator to take control when system expansion and development is required.

It is easy to look at a networked plug-and-play system as an entry-level product with limited support for video and alarm inputs. As standalone devices, it’s true. However, increasingly the manufacturers (the credible ones at least) will either offer a VMS or will be integrated with an open platform VMS. In effect, this allows multiple networked plug-and-play systems to be brought together into a larger unified solution. The systems could be on one site or distributed across multiple sites; it matters not.

Additionally, the systems can be added to larger solutions, allowing quick and easy deployments to be carried out. In many cases they can offer a fast-to-implement expansion which delivers HD video, alarm management, PoE and edge recording in one simple package. In larger systems, each camera attached to the networked plug-and-play CCTV system will be managed and operated in the same way as other devices on the network.

Where end users face limited budgets, it can be tempting to consider a low cost but limited solution. In the long run that won’t be the most cost-effective approach. If the customer’s expectations are not managed, you could see a competitor pick up future contracts. However, a modular approach can be implemented over time using networked plug-and-play systems to suit the budget.

In the future, as new technologies emerge, individual devices or bespoke elements can be added to sit alongside the original systems, futureproofing any investment.

In summary
Networked plug-and-play CCTV systems combine ease of installation with flexibility and the potential for expansion and system upgrades. Ignoring the flexibility on offer may be detrimental to your business.

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