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System Design

Video Recording: Hardware or Software?

When considering video recording of advanced solutions, installers and integrators have had two choices: the embedded hardware NVR or a software-based VMS solution. Increasingly there is a third choice: the security appliance. Benchmark considers the pros and cons of each to see which offers a greater degree of flexibility.

When selecting a video management and recording system for advanced solutions, there are three main options. These are the hardware-based NVR, the software-based VMS and the somewhat newer security appliance. To describe the latter as a cross between the two would not be unusual, but to our minds it doesn’t fully explain what the appliance is.

The first of the three choices is the embedded hardware NVR. These standalone boxes support a fixed number of cameras and typically include management software and integral hard drives. In essence, they represent a one-box solution. Add a monitor and some cameras, plus connectivity if transmission is required, and you’re in business.

The vast majority of established brands in the CCTV surveillance sector will offer an NVR. The choices vary from low cost basic units right up to advanced systems.

One negative for NVRs is that the third party products which are compatible with the recorder may be limited, and in some cases installers and integrators can only use cameras and codecs made by the NVR manufacturer or their partners.

The second choice is the software-based VMS (video management system). There are a few different approaches to the delivery of VMS packages; some manufacturers offer solutions that are defined for various levels of risk (this affects the included functionality and camera count), whilst others offer unlimited solutions with full functionality, the camera count only being capped by the capabilities of the server used. Typically a VMS solution will require a license for each connected device. However, this small fee ensures the delivery of a functional driver. Treat it as an insurance against problems. If a supported device won’t work, it’s the problem of the VMS company because they’ve sold the license!

The plus side of a VMS is enhanced flexibility and functionality, allowing the creation of bespoke systems, plus an open approach to the use of third party devices such as cameras, codecs and additional elements such as IVA and ANPR.

Typically a VMS is supplied as a software package. The installer or integrator needs to provide a server to run the software and to archive footage and other data, plus a monitor and cameras, plus connectivity if transmission is required.

Any VMS provider worth its salt will support installers and integrators with regard to configuring servers and loading the software, and will offer training as well. However, they also recognise there are many who want the benefits and flexibility of a VMS solution, but with the simpler approach of an NVR. This is where the video appliance comes in!

Video appliances are typically pre-configured servers, manufactured by a specialist server company, which are pre-loaded with a VMS package. This allows the higher flexibility of a VMS solution, packaged in a one-box offering which is ready to run. The VMS provider will work with the server company to certificate the application, so the installer or integrator knows that the hardware and software elements will be perfectly integrated and suited to surveillance needs.

With video appliances, you receive a ready-to-run one-box solution, but with enhanced flexibility and an open approach to third party devices. However, always check that the functionality and capacity of a VMS running on an appliance is the same as the specification for the software on its own. Some manufacturers will limit certain features or camera counts to ensure that the appliance is not pushed too hard. Because appliances are typically built to a cost, the software might have slight restrictions.

The best option?
Traditionally, hardware-based solutions have been the cornerstone of video management, and for good reason. With hardware, there is a clear delineation between what is a part of a system and what is not. That helps when troubleshooting.

If a CCTV hardware device fails, then it is obvious that the system is at fault. It will either be the hardware recorder, or the devices connected to it or the connections. The installer or integrator will know it is their responsibility.

Dedicated CCTV hardware appears to deliver direct control over the system. There should be no obvious operating system, no additional services running that might affect performance, and no peculiarities for device management. By adopting a singular approach, dedicated CCTV hardware can deliver a more focused experience.

There is a negative side to hardware. Because it is using hardware codecs and processors, upgrades and device developments are slower to market. Also, advances in general IT performance can only be realised when new products are launched. Even firmware changes require the installer or integrator to manage any upgrades.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that of third party compatibility. Hardware manufacturers have a business focus on building physical boxes and shipping them out to customers. They don’t have the resources or the business infrastructure to support other manufacturer’s products by constantly producing drivers and integration packs. If a new device is launched after an NVR has been installed, the odds are that it won’t be integrated in the future.

Many years ago an industry insider commented that with NVRs and hardware management systems, future developments stop the very second it rolls off the production line. From that point on, firmware upgrades will iron out bugs, but not much else will be added. Interested, the person who said this was a hardware manufacturer!

Software, in itself, has benefits. It is quick to upgrade, flexible, simpler to interface with other solutions, and shares commonality with regard to operating platforms. It can enhance the user experience, and is often customisable to allow users to get the features and functions they need from their systems.

VMS manufacturers effectively sell code, and code is easy to update. It requires no tooling or shipping. Also, the VMS companies actively compete with each other with regards to an open platform approach. If a third party brings out a new device, their technical teams are immediately writing drivers so it can be used with their VMS products.

In the vast majority of cases, manufacturers work with VMS providers before a product launch, thus ensuring that the product is supported from day one.

Software modules also allow flexibility when programming a system. Using AND/OR logic, a VMS can create scenarios that would require a lot of workarounds and additional devices on a hardware-based system.

In summary
Hardware-based system aren’t going to go away. They can be quick and easy, low cost and suit certain applications. However, they do limit the installer or integrator, and often this results in projects being won or lost on cost.

VMS packages, and the associated appliances if that route is taken, allow the installer or integrator to create flexible systems which deliver bespoke solutions. These can deliver security and added value in the form of management benefits. As a result, projects are won based on the value of the system to the customer.

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