When considering the creation of innovative and bespoke security solutions, one tool of growing importance for installers and integrators is the VMS (video management system). Whilst the V in VMS stands for video, the reality is that today’s software packages can deliver a complete security management solution. Here Benchmark considers the available features and functions.
Benchmark is an avid supporter and tireless campaigner for the increased use of VMS packages. Our editorial and test teams have hands-on experience of the leading packages, along with many of the more specialised options. Having seen the good, the bad and at times the undeniably ugly, it is still obvious that these software-based solutions deliver flexibility and benefits that far outweigh those offered by traditional hardware-based surveillance alternatives.
The variety of modern VMS solutions, coupled with their inherent flexibility, makes it difficult to create a catch-all definition of the potential performance on offer. Manufacturers offer a diverse range of features and functions, and even where performance is similar they often achieve their ends via vastly different means.
Whilst there are a few approaches out there that will have you tearing out your hair, it is fair to say that on the whole most professional VMS packages can elevate a system from being average to excellent.
VMS software is specifically designed to be flexible, and as a result the better products allow installers and integrators to configure a system so that its operation fits in with the end-user’s business. This is a far cry from some hardware-based offerings, where often the user has to adapt their working practices to fit in with the limitations of the system.
When installers or integrators try out a decent VMS for the first time, they rarely go back to hardware-based options. This is because the easily-accessible flexibility, the often unlimited scalability and the ease of integration enhance the ability to add value to any installed system.
If you look at the hardware market which predominantly features NVRs and DVRs, one thing is obvious: prices are being eroded. Trade brands are appearing more regularly in the DIY and ‘handyman’ sectors, and this puts pressure on installers and integrators to compete with ever decreasing margins. The one exception with regard to hardware is the rise of appliances: compact servers than run VMS software!
To be brutally honest, the uptake of VMS packages hasn’t been helped by the very companies that offer the software. Whilst VMS is most definitely a security product and includes a depth of features and functions that enable the creation of superior security systems, those who create them are typically from an IT background. What excites IT people doesn’t necessarily excite installers and integrators, and what makes installers and integrators sit up and take notice won’t turn on an IT code writer!
Subsequently the security software is often marketed with the IT-based functions being highlighted. Some suppliers will wax lyrical about how the software works, whilst skirting over what the software will do in a real-world application. Terminology such as ‘situational awareness’ and ‘threat correlation’ might sound security-centric to some IT developers, they are not much help if you want to know how a VMS will enhance a security system in specific applications.
For example, IT people love federated architecture, and many VMS providers push this as a headline feature of their multi-site multi-server systems. For most security professionals, if you buy a multi-site multi-server VMS it is expected that it can allow remote sites to either operate autonomously or as a unified whole. After all, for many years we’ve had hardware-based security systems that did just that. What was a pain-point for the security industry was trying to create relationship-based events, which can be achieved very easily with VMS rules engines.
Benchmark has seen VMS brochures with multiple paragraphs on federated architecture, and the inclusion of a rules engine only warrants a brief bullet point. This doesn’t serve to highlight the benefits of VMS.
In Benchmark tests of VMS, we always try and involve a few installers and integrators who haven’t yet used the technology. Most have switched from hardware as a result of seeing what a VMS can offer. The downside of current marketing is that often the security-related benefits and added value of VMS packages are hidden, and the overall impression is of an IT-based system.
Many installers and integrators will initially consider the use of a VMS for video surveillance applications only. Indeed, if you haven’t had time to work with these products and appreciate the functionality on offer, video management is almost inevitably the first step. Because the platforms have, over many years now, been custom-designed for integrations, today’s systems offer a much wider range of functionality.
In the past decade VMS software has moved from being a ‘CCTV’ product to emerge as a true multi-disciplined platform that can combine video with access control, intruder detection, perimeter protection, business intelligence, building management, automation, communications, etc..
Too often installers and integrators believe that the benefits of VMS are outweighed by the rigmarole associated with installation and configuration. We can understand such attitudes, despite the fact that they are incorrect.
There is a perception that VMS implementations are complex and require a high degree of IT skills. However, as is the case with many perceptions, the reality is very different. The leading providers of VMS offer well-constructed installation packages and configuration is simple with the right packages. Indeed, the team at Benchmark has seen NVRs and DVRs that are far more confusing when it comes to configuration!
The mixture of IT-biased marketing and incorrect perceptions can make VMS selection appear to be something of a minefield. Whilst it’s true that it can be easy to specify an inappropriate VMS for any given solution, an understanding of the core features and functions definitely helps get things right.
With some simple background information, the world of VMS-based solutions offers a lucrative and rewarding choice for most installers and integrators.
The right fit?
Before considering the specification of a VMS, it is worth addressing the two main approaches taken by manufacturers. Some will offer a range of VMS products with differing levels of capacity and performance, while others will offer a single VMS product which may have some features and functions requiring additional licenses.
It’s not uncommon to see providers claiming that their way is best, but for installers and integrators the two approaches are much of a muchness. It should be remembered that over-specification can result in an increased need for processing power to deliver acceptable performance, just as under-specification will create issues.
Where manufacturers produce a range of VMS products, the main differences will be the number of devices, servers, client and users supported. Usually the core features and functions of the various levels of software will also differ. Certain system elements may be missing from packages aimed at lower camera count applications. Where a range of differently specified VMS products are offered, upgrading to a higher specified product in the range is usually possible if the need arises.
With the second approach, manufacturers offer a single VMS product and its capacity is dictated by the licences applied. This sometimes means that core features and functions will be included no matter how many devices are deployed. However, in many cases some may be restricted in terms of performance or simply disabled unless an additional licence is applied.
Both approaches have pros and cons. For example, where a company offers a range of different products, it may be necessary to buy a package with higher capacity than is necessary – which in turn introduces a higher cost – if there is a specific feature required which is not available on the products aimed at lower camera count sites.
Some VMS manufacturers hold the opinion that systems with few cameras are indicative of low-risk sites, whilst high-risk applications will always have a significantly greater number of devices. As installers and integrators will be well aware, camera count has nothing to do with risk. There are many low-risk sites with hundreds of cameras, just as there are high-risk sites with a device count in single figures.
The ‘lighter’ software packages will often deliver all required functionality for many mainstream applications in a package that will run very well on a lower cost server. This may not be the case if a single fully-blown VMS package is used running just a few cameras.
With traditional hardware-based systems, the first place to start is with system requirements in terms of the number of cameras, displays, users, etc.. This is important when specifying a VMS, but as has been pointed out is not the be-all and end-all. It is vital that installers and integrators also consider the required features and functions, and ascertain that these are included in all considered VMS variants.
The first step is to ascertain the capacity of the VMS with regard to devices, servers, clients and users. It is worth thinking in terms of devices rather than cameras. VMS packages increasingly support a wider range of devices alongside cameras, including – but not limited to – detectors, access readers, codecs, barriers, door openers, lighting, lift controllers, speakers and PA systems, digital signage, EPOS systems, etc..
Most VMS will employ a server/client relationship, in that the server will handle the security management elements; this is where the installer or integrator configures the system. The user interfaces with the system via a client (typically the client software is free-of-charge or comes bundled with the VMS). The number of clients that can be concurrently connected needs to be ascertained. It is also worth checking the number of users supported. While it might seem as though the number of clients and users will be the same, some VMS packages will support more users. This is because several users might utilise a single client, but if they have specific needs they can set certain system attributes – such as screen displays, camera views, etc. – to suit their individual needs.
Finally, the number of supported servers needs to be checked. In many applications a single server will be sufficient, but with distributed or campus-type applications, multiple servers might be required. It is also important to understand that some multi-server products might not be multi-site products too. Ascertain whether the servers must be local or can be distributed.
For smaller applications, it is common to run both the server and client on the same hardware. This can be often be done without any performance issues. Whilst not best practice, we have seen VMS installations with a few cameras running both the server and client software on a standard laptop. This was done purely to illustrate that VMS packages don’t require supercomputers! With a growing number of companies offering security-spec servers and workstations, VMS can be credible in even the smallest applications.
One last point with regard to capacity is that many VMS packages will be promoted as unlimited in terms of device support. Obviously, the server hardware will impose a physical limitation, in that it will only have the processing capability to support a certain number of devices. Professional VMS suppliers will advise on how many devices are supported for any given server specification.
Another important issue with regard to devices is to establish the level of support that any VMS offers for third party equipment. Many VMS products are billed as open platform, but what does this really mean?
Open platform VMS packages will include regularly updated device packs. These include drivers that interface with specific cameras. Often this means that all features of that device will be supported by the VMS unless the manufacturer states that they are specifically excluded.
The benefit of a VMS supplier with a healthy relationship with third party camera (and other device) manufacturers is that they will often work on the creation of drivers before products are launched. This enables installers and integrators to deploy devices with new technologies as soon as they are launched.
The open platform approach means that supported third party devices can be added and configured with ease. If the product is supported, it should be recognised and added to the system without any issues.
There are some provisos attached to claims of ‘open platform’ support. Some VMS suppliers will reel off a list of well-established security manufacturers as being supported, but further investigation reveals that only one or two devices from them have full support. Benchmark has seen cases where a credible security brand is mentioned as being supported, but there is only one driver for a consumer device from that manufacturer. It’s also worth checking claims which are less specific. We’ve seen device lists that include hundreds of manufacturers, but our test team had only heard of around a dozen of them!
VMS packages will often support non-listed devices using ONVIF. Again, a note of caution is required. Even if the VMS has a good ONVIF implementation, it doesn’t always mean that the devices in question have. Whilst ONVIF has taken a step forwards with profiles, regular testing still shows that around 35 per cent of VMS connectivity issues centre on poor implementations.
It’s not uncommon for some VMS packages to offer optimum performance only when used with devices from the manufacturer supplying the software. These also might deliver restricted performance for ONVIF implementations. Whilst there is nothing wrong with a business offering a VMS for its own hardware products, it must be realised that the open platform approach is a significant benefit for installers and integrators, and is our recommended choice when selecting a VMS.
Recording functions are a key point of VMS products and there are a few elements to clarify. Does the VMS support multiple recording servers? If it does, can these be networked or do they have to directly connected? Can edge archiving sources be brought together at a unified storage location? Can the system automatically carry out scheduled archiving, moving footage to a secondary location after a period of time?
Whilst surveillance systems can easily be made to act in a more proactive way using VMS, the reality is that most end users will still have a requirement for recorded video.
Ascertain whether the VMS will monitor the recording media, and if so can the status of this be used to trigger notifications? If, for example, HDD performance is deteriorating, a good VMS should be able to send a notification.
The ability to remotely archive ensures that potential losses are minimised, and also allows more efficient system management. Bandwidth management can also be enhanced if edge recording support is available. Where footage is deemed to be critical, the ability to configure failover servers is also worthwhile.
Many people consider the use of failover servers for recording, but it is also worth considering if such support is available for the management server and event server functions as well. Selecting a professional VMS package with a good degree of system health monitoring makes sense, and configuring actions should any events be reported should be a simple task.
We’ve already briefly touched on third party devices, but it’s worth also looking at the supported video formats when thinking about recording. Some VMS products might support a third party camera for its M-JPEG and H.264 streams, but not for a H.265 video output. With H.265 increasingly appearing on 4K UHD cameras, it makes sense to ensure that a VMS can handle the new format. Where third party devices use proprietary compression, will it be fully supported? If an end user has specified certain devices for proprietary features, they won’t be too impressed if these are lost due to format support issues.
Alarm and event handling are an important part of the flexibility of a VMS; some would argue that they are the most important beyond the core requirements of recording video and allowing it to be reviewed and analysed. It’s worth thinking in terms of alarms and events being different things to better understand how a VMS can deliver advanced benefits.
Alarms are typically security specific. Something – VMD, video analytics, a camera input, an external detection device, a system status report or signal from another attached device – creates an alarm and an action is subsequently initiated. Alarms are similar to those available from NVRs and DVRs, albeit with greater flexibility in relation to how they are logged and/or communicated.
Events differ, in that they can be security specific, but they might also be associated with system management, business intelligence, site management or business-specific tasks. Events have more to do with cause (a single or multiple occurrences start an event) and effect (an action or multiple actions are initiated as a result). This could be, for example, that video motion is detected within a secure area outside of opening hours, which in turn generates a notification to an on-site operator whilst also recording high resolution video in real-time from a group of associated cameras. Equally, an event could be that a queue is detected in a retail environment while only one till point is manned, resulting in a text message being sent to department manager to alert them that additional staff are required.
A good VMS should be able to manage a very wide range of inputs and outputs for alarms and events. Unlike hardware-based options, all I/Os are digital and as such have a high degree of flexibility. Whether the source is a security device (video, audio, detection signals, access transactions, etc.), a system status event, a site management event or a signal from a host of peripheral devices matters not in terms of starting an event.
When it comes to IVA and VMD, a professional VMS should enable installers and integrators to decide whether the detection occurs at the edge device or the VMS itself. A number of VMS products include video analytics as standard, while some include it as a licensable feature. More specialised options are also available as third party plug-ins or applications. Just as is the case with device packs, installers and integrators should carefully consider which third party partners offer additional plug-ins for any given product.
Well implemented device packs will ensure that supported cameras not only have all features available including VMD and IVA where included, but also that any I/Os (and audio) from the camera can be used. The better VMS packages will also allow a detector or other device connected to a camera to be used independently for event management applications.
Basic alarm/action transactions are simple to configure in all VMS packages, just as they are with NVRs and DVRs. The ability to switch inputs and outputs won’t get many installers and integrators overly excited, even if it is possible to link an input from one camera with the output on another in a different part of the site. However, with cameras, inputs and outputs and other devices configured, a number of VMS packages offer advanced rules engines which add significant value in an easy-to-use function.
Benchmark has tested a wide range of VMS products, ranging from the very earliest offerings to today’s advanced multi-site unified security management tools. In all that time, one single feature has consistently elevated the potential of VMS solutions over the hardware alternatives, and that is rules engines.
All professional VMS packages will record and manage video, offer advanced search and evidence handling tools, deliver flexibility with regard to system configuration and add value in terms of scalability and integration. However, the VMS solutions with decent rules engines enable installers and integrators to take security system design to another level.
The rules engine effectively manages the alarms and events. Criteria can be expanded to filter events. For example, if a vehicle enters a site during working hours, and turns left into a designated parking area, the system can ignore the event or log it without raising an alarm. If it turns right into a loading bay, the event could be logged and a notification sent to the warehouse manager. If the vehicle stops and does not turn, or if it carries straight on, an alarm could be generated. Whatever the needs of the site, a rules engine can deliver specific and bespoke actions as required.
As long as a condition can be detected or data gathered about status by the VMS, this can usually be included in a rule. This allows rules to encompass both security and non-security tasks.
For example, a VMS could enable vehicle entry and exit counts on a car park to be recorded. Barriers on areas without spaces would not open and digital signage could direct visitors to an overflow parking area. Alternatively, using ANPR, if a vehicle not registered to a business is detected in a secure area, the system can raise an alarm and prevent egress by locking barriers.
For those who have not used this element of a VMS, the obvious concern is that setting up complex scenarios is going to require some heavy-duty programming knowledge. However, most professional VMS packages achieve this via simple drop-down menus using AND/OR logic. This approach delivers a huge range of flexibility in a very simple format.
Whilst all VMS solutions have variations in their methodology, installers and integrators who are looking for bespoke event management should consider how the rules are implemented. It is also prudent to ensure that the VMS package includes a rules engine: some suppliers reserve this essential feature for only the higher capacity systems.
VMS packages are not only flexible in terms of video management; connectivity is a large part of what is on offer. The scalability of solutions, coupled with an ability to manage distributed system elements, means that any credible VMS should be capable of supporting a wide range of communications options.
Connectivity via mobile devices using apps should be supported by all professional VMS solutions. Typically such apps are free. Some include simplified processes to establish and verify secure connections, allowing relevant data to be installed on trusted devices by the VMS itself. This makes tasks such as port forwarding simpler without a reliance on third party services.
Increasingly the use of push notifications is becoming a staple of VMS connectivity. This enables the delivery of reports and status updates to users, thus allowing value to be added where the VMS is deployed to tackle a combination of security and site management issues. The ability to deliver real-time notifications and updates can be achieved without compromising the protection on offer, increasing the day-to-day benefits of a VMS to the end user.
When it comes to multi-site applications, the much trumpeted federated architecture comes into play. This allows distributed systems to operate as individual autonomous sub-systems or as a single unified entity, or as a mix of the two. The point of control can be changed as required to deal with a wide range of requirements.
Any decent VMS provider will also offer interoperability between all of its products as well as a host of third party options.
The key benefit of a VMS is flexibility. A professional and correctly specified package offers a number of options with regard to video management, an open approach to supported third party devices and applications, effective and bespoke alarm handling, choice of communications and notifications and a wide range of integration possibilities.
Because of this it isn’t possible to take a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and installers and integrators may find that a VMS which is ideal for one application won’t be the best choice for another.
Getting the specification right does take time if you’re new to these products, because it might be necessary to assess the approach to each required function for any given manufacturer. A full trial is also recommended, and if a provider doesn’t want to offer this, ask yourself why!
VMS is proactive, flexible and scalable, and if you want to offer users bespoke solutions that add genuine value, then these products will become an essential part of your systems.