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Specifying a VMS

by Benchmark

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 encompassing a wider range of security disciplines. Here Benchmark considers the available features and functions of VMS options.

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.

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.

In the hardware market which predominantly features NVRs and DVRs, 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.

In Benchmark tests of VMS, we always try and involve some 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.

Many installers and integrators will initially consider the use of a VMS for video surveillance applications only. Because the platforms have, over many years now, been custom-designed for integrations, today’s systems offer a much wider range of functionality.

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..

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.

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 offer a range of products with differing levels of capacity and performance, while others offer a single product with certain features and functions requiring additional licenses.

It’s not uncommon to see providers claiming that their approach is best, but for installers and integrators the two approaches are much of a muchness.

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 options 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 can mean that core features and functions will be included no matter how many devices are deployed. However, in many cases features may offer restricted performance or simply be 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.

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.

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.

The first step is to determine 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 products 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 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. Confirm 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 PC. With a growing number of companies offering security-specific 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 should advise on how many devices are supported for any given server specification.

Open platform

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 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 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 available.
The open platform approach means that supported third party devices can be added and configured with ease.

There are some provisos attached to claims of ‘open platform’ support. Some VMS suppliers will reel off a list of well-established manufacturers as being supported, but further investigation reveals that only one or two devices from them have full support. It’s also worth checking claims which are less specific.

We’ve seen device lists that include hundreds of manufacturers, but only around a dozen of them offer professional products.

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 forward with profiles, regular testing still shows that around 30 per cent of VMS connectivity issues centre on poor implementations.

Recording functions

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.

Failover servers are often used for archiving, 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.

Alarm management

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 to better understand how a VMS can deliver benefits.

Alarms are typically security specific. Something – VMD, video analytics, an input, a detection device, a status report or signal from another 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.

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 in the form of third party plug-ins or applications.

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 VMS. The ability to switch inputs and outputs won’t get many installers and integrators excited. However, with cameras, inputs and outputs and other devices configured, VMS packages offer advanced rules engines which add significant value in an easy-to-use function.

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.

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 flexibility in a very simple format.

Remote connectivity

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.

In summary

The key benefit of VMS is flexibility. A professional and correctly specified package offers 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 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.

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