The CCTV Project Planner

CCTV implementations face a lack of product standardization, a confusing bidding process, and a limiting market structure. Here is expert guidance on critical considerations about bandwidth, frame rate, image quality and more

This article provides an overview of the video surveillance system planning and implementation process, and focuses on end-user perspectives. Successful CCTV projects are difficult to accomplish. Success factors are endogenous and exogenous to individual systems. Both are equally important to understand when planning for system implementations. The best way for an end-user to find success is first to gain insight into a few key issues in the CCTV industry.

The Broad Issues of CCTV

Probably the largest ongoing issue in the CCTV market is standardization, or lack thereof. Standardization, in the case of CCTV, is defined through the measurable areas of system specifications. There have never been any regulated standards of measurement for CCTV equipment and it is difficult for end-users to make a side-by-side product comparison. One recent development in CCTV standardization, NICET (National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technology), has developed a rigorous Video Security Systems certification program with separate tracks for Video Security Systems Designers and Video Security Systems Installers. If you've worked with fire alarm systems, you know that NICET certifications are highly regarded. While these programs don't standardize product design, they do foster best practices for system designers and installing technicians.

The lack of standardization brings other issues. If for example, if you have multiple sites and need to install cameras across them at different times for different needs, you're likely to have compatibility issues across systems. These difficulties can range from requiring complete replacement of systems, rewiring, reprogramming. In many ways, they can cost your organization time, resources, and money. So, it's crucial when you're planning for a system to evaluate your entire range of facilities, how often you tend to make moves, adds, and changes to your system and how long your planning to occupy your facilities so you can make correct equipment selections.

Along with the broader standardization issue and its systems-level problems, the working structure of the CCTV product market presents some challenges. Even a seasoned CCTV project manager has little chance of keeping up with this ever-growing landscape. The good news is that there's a product solution for every CCTV scenario. But these solutions, as we'll see, aren't as ubiquitous as they seem and may even result in more headaches than innovation.

Let's take a common video-system project bid scenario: Typically, an end-user will take several bids for a CCTV project. The idea is to make viable comparisons between vendors or integrators, choosing the one most suited for your project: i.e. the lowest responsible bidder. These comparisons are made more difficult in light of the lack of standardization mentioned above, and also in light of the CCTV product market. If each of your vendors can provide quotations using the same system configurations and equipment, you'll be lucky. Some of the reasons for this difficulty will lie at the system level, which we'll cover later, but market issues also affect systems issues, and it's especially important with CCTV to be aware of them.

Delving a bit deeper into the comparative difficulties in CCTV system evaluations is helpful, especially focusing attention on the relationships between product manufacturers, product resellers, and product installers. Generally, CCTV product manufacturers sell their products to resellers, who then sell to installers, who are providing the quotations on your system. Additionally, installers often take on relationships with manufacturers to buy directly, and in some cases manufacturers do not sell their products at all through reseller channels, but only to product installers. Within these relationships are factors that result in end-user difficulties. Product installers make choices to install particular systems based on prices they get from resellers and manufacturers and their installation force's training and certification on product lines.

Given these relationships, it's easy to see why actual front-line product offerings are limited, so let's take a look at how these limitations translate into the end-user project: The effect manifests in several ways. For example, each of your bidders are likely to have preferences for your system that are based in part on their relationships with resellers and manufacturers, and in part by the best match amongst those limited offerings for your individual application. Even if your bidders are able to provide you with quotes for duplicate equipment, it's likely that their price points will reflect their volume of purchasing with that equipment manufacturer or reseller, and may not reflect the best price, or system, they could provide you.

Some vendor relationships are based in volume. So, your installing company may be able to provide a quote for the system you're evaluating, but they may get second- or third-tier technical and customer service support. They may also have limited access to replacement inventory and certified technicians for the system, both which can create significant pricing, implementation, and ongoing systems support issues for end-users.

Generally speaking, CCTV product installers don't reinvent the wheel with each individual system implementation. They choose from between probably 3 to 5 product offerings, and probably would prefer to install no more than one or two. Since these product installers generally operate in a very overlapping geographical area, they are likely to be familiar with their competitors and with how to compete with them.

As a result of this overall market structure, the end-user is hard-pressed to make quantitative comparisons between product offerings, and has a relatively limited amount of viable product choices. And because there is no way for an end-user to change the nature of these relationships, it is best to learn to structure your projects in light of them, rather than against them.

It's odd that the nature of the CCTV market is somewhat confining in terms of choices ultimately presented to the end-user, while the proliferation of new equipment and technologies continues in the industry. Consider carefully the effects of your selections. It's especially prudent to examine product providers' company history. How long have they been in business? How many successful implementations have they performed prior to yours? And what is their back-support offering for products? While most quality CCTV equipment may realistically last for 10-20 years, the company building and selling it may not, nor may the service provider. If the equipment you're purchasing is proprietary technology, be sure to consider what other service possibilities exist in your area in case you need to switch providers for any reason. Product platforms may be proprietary, open-source, or mixed in their ability to communicate with other platforms, an especially prudent factor if you're working on multiple sites in multiple areas.

Knowing these issues and their front-line effects is an important aspect of planning, implementing, and ongoing system maintenance for CCTV systems. Probably the most important take away from these broad issues is that your system is likely to contain a certain degree of flux, empirically and qualitatively. From a financial management standpoint, everything must be done to minimize the fuzziness of a CCTV implementation. From a planning standpoint it is crucial to spend time working with your systems providers, work with them to hone in on the best system at the best price point, taking into consideration their particular expertise and ability to satisfy your needs, and provide the continuing product and service support on your system. Planning in this way will provide the best ROSI, and the best functioning CCTV System.

Systems-Level Planning:

Keeping in mind the necessarily organic nature of a CCTV project, resulting from the market-level will further help the CCTV system manager, or end-user, with system planning, implementation, and ongoing system management. As an end-user, you should always keep your thoughts turned to the functioning system you're looking to implement. Oftentimes, if you don't focus on the end result of your system, you'll find your plan sideways. As you're planning your system you should ask several fundamental questions.

What network considerations need to be accounted for in the movement of CCTV data? In the earlier section on market-trends we discussed the lack of standardization in the CCTV industry. Bandwidth consumption is a primary example of this issue, and is further complicated by the organic nature of captured images. A few considerations, however, still make bandwidth a less than confusing issue. First, if you're going to put any number of cameras on your IP network (rather than on dedicated closed-circuit cabling), the IT department must be involved. Even with new compression methods like MPEG-7 and H.264 [PDF link] (which you may hear about during your site surveys), CCTV systems still take considerable bandwidth. Bandwidth is a significant cost factor for your video system, as the amount of cameras goes up, so does network consumption and the need for features like; bandwidth throttles, edge devices that only push data during slower network traffic periods, alarm features that only send data when movement in the image frame exceeds defined thresholds, or even video servers which are dedicated to the CCTV system. (For more, see A Buyers Guide to IP Surveillance Cameras.)

Even though compression methods are strong, the organic nature of individual images cannot be measured and will vary. Even the most basic DVR's will feature most of the bandwidth control methods I mentioned above. So, again, be flexible in your expectations of bandwidth consumption. A good rule of hand is to budget for 20 percent more bandwidth consumption than you need. Even more important is monitoring consumption after the system goes online, and continuing to reduce your data streams by adjusting for the activity levels, light trends, and other factors influencing your individual cameras.

How Good Do My Images Need To Look?

Another way of helping with bandwidth consumption, and an area to think about prior to implementation is image quality. Image quality is primarily quantified through FPS (Frames Per Second). Even basic camera systems can control frames per second at the individual camera level. Also, FPS can be tied to alarm activities, so you can immediately record in high resolution when an alarm event is taking place. When thinking about your individual cameras, consider what you are looking to capture. If it's something intermittent, you can drastically reduce bandwidth consumption by managing FPS in relation to events. Many recorders also offer pre and post-alarm-event recording features that capture high resolution (high FPS) images both before and after the alarm event. This helps you to capture the entire occurrence, while at the same time saving bandwidth between events. Again, and as with bandwidth management, the real dialing-in of a CCTV system takes place after it's online, be sure to continue managing your system after it's online and you'll be rewarded with increased security and reduced bandwidth consumption.

How Long Do I Need To Store Captured Images?

Storage of CCTV data is something that gets overlooked. Remember that after this data is recorded it's going to quickly pile up and need to be either dumped or relocated to another storage medium. Even a one terabyte hard drive is going to fill up quickly enough with just a few cameras.

Most businesses won't need to store data for more than two weeks. If you take into consideration how many cameras you're implementing, what data you need to save, and to what extent you'll need to use it once it's archived, you can form an idea of the storage space and storage technique you need. If you only need to save your archived video for a period of 1-2 weeks and you have a relatively small amount of cameras (remember this is organic), you can likely specify a DVR that will hold all that data, and then rewrite itself after a two week period. You can also push data to a storage server, offload it onto tape if offsite storage is required, or burn it onto DVD. Make sure you strictly regiment whatever storage program you decide on; too often ROSI is lost because of failure to closely monitor, store, and protect CCTV archives. For IT professionals, CCTV data should be treated with the principles of Availability, Integrity, and Confidentiality that govern IT data security.

Additionally, when you're thinking about data storage be sure to inquire about chain-of-custody best practices. If you're going to be handling potentially litigious situations with your video, be sure you've got a firm grasp of what procedures you'll need to implement for the proper handling of archived video. Consult your legal counsel if this is a crucial requirement of your system. Additionally, the issue of CCTV signage can become litigious, if you're considering putting up signs that mention video surveillance be sure to consult council. (See also The Hidden Camera for more about this tricky issue.)

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