VSaaS: The basics of surveillance as a service

Managed video surveillance claims to simplify hardware hassles and reduce the need for monitoring manpower

Software as a service (SaaS) and cloud computing have swept the IT world, thanks in large part to promises of cost savings, ease of management and use-it-as-you-need-it operations. So it's no surprise that SaaS has come to video surveillance.

VSaaS systems—also known as hosted or managed video surveillance—are now offered by newcomers and traditional camera and video management software (VMS) companies, and by others in the surveillance space, such as access control firms and video analytics companies.

With VSaaS, cameras are installed at the user's site and video is streamed to systems at the provider's facilities. There is no need to implement specialized VMS for viewing the video; this is done over the Web. Users are charged a monthly per-camera fee—usually around $20.

See the companion article VSaaS Dos and Don'ts for real-world implementation advice

In some cases, video is also captured on a storage system on the user's premises. Before choosing between hosted and managed systems—or a hybrid of the two—users have to understand the difference, says John Honovich, founder of IP Video Market, a website devoted to video surveillance.

  • Hosted video: Offsite recording—video generated onsite is transferred on the customer's WAN to the provider's data centers, where it is managed and stored.
  • Managed video: Onsite recording— video is stored at the customer's site and is remotely managed by the provider.
  • Combination of hosted and managed: Video is streamed to the provider's site but also stored on the customer's premises in one of many ways, such as on the cameras, on an appliance or on a network-attached storage (NAS) device. Honovich sees a growing number of hosting providers adding onsite recording, and he believes this will become the most common approach.

Key Benefits of Managed Surveillance

Secure Web access to surveillance video: In traditional video surveillance, users view video by connecting directly to onsite recorders, which requires cumbersome networking changes and additional software on the viewing PC, Honovich says. With VSaaS, video is viewed from a public secure website hosted by the provider. Not only does this eliminate the need for dedicated viewing software, but it also enables users to view video anywhere they have Internet access.

Lower maintenance costs: Bob Stockwell, director of systems operations at security integrator Niscayah, says his company began offering hosted video solutions 16 months ago after selling traditional systems for 15 years. Niscayah uses several hosted solutions, including Axis Communications's Axis Video Hosting System. Hosted and managed setups appeal to clients who no longer want to worry about updating their VMS and the digital video recorders (DVRs) or network video recorders (NVRs) on which it runs, Stockwell says. In traditional setups, video is recorded on DVRs or NVRs that may be attached to a network, which makes them vulnerable to hackers, he says. Clients don't always keep up with security updates, and even if IT is involved with securing the box, the client often has to rely on the VMS vendor when the software itself needs updates or has problems.

"Clients are asking how to eliminate this ongoing maintenance, and that's where hosting comes into play," Stockwell says.

Fewer DVR and NVR worries: There are three concerns with NVRs and DVRs, Stockwell says: theft, damage and breakdowns. When a business is burgled, the DVR or NVR is often stolen. And if there's a fire, the recording device is often too damaged to be useful in determining whether it was set purposely and if so, who was the perpetrator. That's not a problem in a managed or hosted environment, in which the cameras stream video to the provider's site in real time.

When an NVR or DVR fails, customers often don't realize it until an incident occurs and they check the stored video. "That's when they find the DVR has not been recording for some time," Stockwell says. In a managed environment, on the other hand, the camera is reporting to the provider's system, and you can also have redundancy through onsite storage.

Video Surveillance as a Service: Market Maturity

IMS Research predicts that VSaaS will be one of the biggest trends driving growth in the video marketplace in 2010. Integrators also report an uptick in sales of these systems. But according to Honovich, while some products for some applications are ready for use, it's important to view them with a critical eye, as they are still somewhat immature and not quite ready for the mass market. Compared with traditional systems, he says, they do not yet offer competitive features and pricing.

Consider that an eight-camera system with a typical monthly service fee would cost $5,760 over three years, he says. This is a few thousand more than an onsite setup with an eight-channel DVR or NVR. Providers would need to charge about $10 per camera per month—half what they do now—to motivate the broader market, Honovich says.

These solutions will gain broad acceptance when they offer a total cost of ownership comparable to traditional systems, he says. In the meantime, Honovich predicts, they will significantly alter the market by reshaping the home and small-business segments and by forcing traditional providers to add hosted or managed capabilities to their offerings.

Typical Users

Typical users of hosted or managed systems are restaurant and retail chains, apartment complexes and small businesses. According to Stockwell, the systems are also being considered or used by healthcare organizations, telecommunications firms, manufacturers, banks, pharmaceutical companies and, recently, the public sector.

"They're appealing when you need rapid deployment of systems that are not tied down by a DVR, and the customer wants to get out from having to refresh the technology so often," he says. One pharmaceutical firm asked Niscayah to implement a hosted or managed system in 100 locations where it didn't want workers to be able to view video locally. Another client, a large global firm with a 6,000-camera VMS system, wanted to expand video surveillance to its smaller offices, which would need just five or so cameras. "They didn't want to spend $10,000 to put another NVR in there," Stockwell says. "We brought in the cameras, which stream back to the hosted server, and a local copy is stored on a NAS."

Christopher Kuncaitis, director of operations at the K Group of Companies, which implements systems from VIAAS, says he sees interest among companies that don't need DVR equipment onsite and don't want to spend a lot on IP surveillance. "They can spend $100 to $150 per camera, and then another $10 a month for service, versus $10,000 for the DVR, five cameras, wiring and setup," he says.

Kuncaitis sees a lot of interest from the construction industry because job sites may only need a temporary system or may have an Internet connection but not a computing infrastructure. "Rapid deployment is perfect for them, plus the video being stored offsite is great because no one can steal the DVR," he says.

Kuncaitis also sells to retailers, convenience stores and businesses, such as investment firms, that have a number of small locations that need two to five cameras each. "They can view all of them on one screen," he says. "It brings central management to multiple locations."

Kevin Surace, president of Serious Materials—a 400-person supplier of green-building materials in Sunnyvale, Calif.—has been using a hosted system from Connexed for three years in several of its sales and management offices. He plans to expand the system to an additional four factories.

Surace says he wanted video surveillance without the maintenance. His needs are basic—cameras monitor who enters and leaves the sites, not individual employee activity, he says. "You can be traveling anywhere in the world—as long as there's a Web connection, you can see them leave or enter the building and what they were carrying." In one instance, the company was able to identify who was stealing from other workers' wallets because it knew who had left that site at a specified time. "He used a credit card at a particular time, and only two employees had exited the site in that time frame, only one of whom was in the area of the theft," Surace says. "It was enough evidence to send him away for a while."

Key Differentiators

There is a lot of diversity among provider offerings, Honovich says, in terms of target markets, architectures and pricing. He identifies five key differentiators:

Camera support: Managed and hosted video providers tend to offer more limited camera support. For instance, some providers only support IP cameras, or their own IP cameras, while others only support analog or require an encoder. Still others support a wide variety of IP cameras.

Complexity of onsite setup: While most suppliers provide plug-and-play support, some, including ByRemote and IVR Controls, require onsite configuration.

Sophistication of video management: Providers tend to offer only basic video management functionality, although most are capable of managing multiple systems out of the box for no extra charge, whereas traditional providers often require an additional server and licensing costs. Only a few, such as Archerfish and VIAAS, support video analytics or, like Brivo integration with access control. (For more on the potential benefits of such integration, see Steve Hunt's Physical security information management: The basics.)

Local storage support: It's becoming more typical for providers to offer cameras that incorporate SD cards—between 16 and 32GB—or can connect to an onsite DVR or NAS appliance.

Pricing: Cost ranges from free to more than $20 per month. The higher pricing tends to reflect systems that offer only offsite storage. The free offerings all provide either no storage (just real-time viewing) or only onsite storage.

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