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How to fit a square peg in a round hole


tech·nol·o·gy  ag·nos·tic: A software program that is not dedicated to a single hardware platform, but instead is flexible enough to work with any hardware device. 

I recently had a couple of conversations regarding my technology-agnostic approach to surveillance. These conversations gave me an opportunity to re-examine what we have done, and more importantly, they provided confirmation that this approach brought value to our organization without sacrificing quality.

Putting Things In Context

So what does technology agnostic mean as it relates to surveillance? The idea is to have a stable and reliable operating system that works on readily available hardware platforms versus an operating system that is specifically designed to work with the hardware. Think Windows OS versus Apple iOS. Both operating systems have their pros and cons but only one will work with off-the-shelf hardware components.

If you choose a system that is a one-box solution, where the software is specifically designed to work with specific hardware, then you are forced into a never-ending cycle of obsolescence, expensive upgrades, and even more expensive system changes. If you choose a system that is technology agnostic the range of flexibility is much greater, giving the business more options moving forward.

Small Talk

In both of my conversations, one to our new VP of security and surveillance and the other to an integrator, I was explaining a project we recently completed for our video area network (VAN) in surveillance that is saving us thousands of dollars.

Our system was already technology agnostic but we needed to decide if we would purchase the hardware from the video management system (VMS) manufacturer, purchase the hardware from someplace else, or build it ourselves. I explained that we were essentially building our own servers and storage to replace the original manufacturer’s servers and storage.

Our original VMS software came preconfigured on the manufacturer’s provided servers and storage devices, and some of those hardware components were becoming obsolete, so we needed to make some decisions about the direction we would take for replacing these devices.

Our surveillance technicians approached me with a plan to replace the original equipment by designing and building their own servers/storage from readily available off-the-shelf hardware. They felt they could build a device that was more robust and could be easily upgraded in the future.

They wanted to test the concept first by building the device and running it in parallel to an existing piece of hardware. We executed our plan and everything worked out exactly as we had envisioned. We slowly began the process of switching out the entire system with the new servers and storage.

The best part of our plan was that we saved 60-70 percent in costs by building our own devices versus purchasing them from the VMS manufacturer or someone else. Essentially, we just paid $50,000 to replace 500 channels of video servers and storage.

I could tell the VP had some nervous excitement about the concept because he used the analogy of a wheelbarrow to describe the boldness of executing such a plan. More importantly, he understood the value of what we had done, because he had seen his fair share of capital requests that were in the hundreds of thousands if not in the millions of dollars for similar projects.

The integrator was little more pessimistic about our approach, suggesting that this was risky and could be considered a little reckless. He also stated that his team builds and sells similar hardware solutions and will load our VMS onto their hardware. So I asked, what was the difference if they built and provided the hardware or if we handled this in-house? His response was that they had the technical expertise to handle such a project.

I replied by suggesting that his technicians weren’t the only ones with the skills to be able to pull this off, and that I had the same level of guarantee from the manufacturer as they have. Silence…

Real Talk

What is important to you is not necessarily aligned with the manufacturer, and when we consider the availability of open-source VMS solutions there is a clear disconnect between what the end user wants and what the manufacturers want to provide.

Navigating a system purchase for surveillance is very different than buying a system for IT. In IT, you can buy direct from the manufacturer for both hardware and software. In surveillance/security, you have to use an integrator to buy everything from cameras to your VMS. You have to hand it to the manufacturers and integrators for developing a sustainable business model that is based on “convenience” for the customer.

The reality is that this business model is based on relationships between the manufacturers and the integrators and what kind of margins they work on. The VMS manufacturers usually develop their own software and use original equipment manufacturers’ (OEM) hardware that is re-branded with their label. This means that the VMS provider negotiates a volume price for the hardware, marks it up by X percent based upon their relationship with the integrator who also marks it up by X percent, and re-sells it to the end user.

The incentive is strong for the integrator to push a product that gives them excellent margins, so you really don’t know if you are getting the best solution for your money. If the manufacturer and integrators’ relationship sours during the installation or shortly after, then the customer suffers the consequences.

If there are problems during the installation or shortly after, then the finger-pointing starts, with each company blaming the other for the problems. Ultimately, you could end up with a system that your integrator no longer supports, leaving you alone to deal with any future problems or issues that may come up.

I am not suggesting that all manufacturers and integrators are secretly scheming to try and take over the world. Most integrators have a multitude of vertical markets from schools to prisons that they support on a regular basis. It only makes good business sense to have a wide variety of technologies that can appeal to such a diverse group of customers.

In many cases, the integrators will work very hard to earn your business and get certified on many different VMS platforms so you can make a good buying decision for your property. If you are confident in the services that your integrator and manufacturer provide, that’s a good thing for your business—as long as you understand the consequences if things start to fall apart.

Tech Talk

After the original purchase of our VMS nine years ago, we rarely used the services of an integrator again. Instead, I hired technicians that had a strong background in IT who could design and maintain a stable video and access control network. They’re not CCTV technicians, but they understand IT networks, hardware, software and circuitry.

They possess a different mindset than the traditional CCTV tech, and aren’t afraid to experiment with new technologies. In addition, we purchase most of our network equipment through big-box sales companies, and purchase our CCTV equipment through larger integrators with a strong background in box sales. We have been making smart decisions for our business ever since, by creating a future-proof network that is scalable to new technologies and can be easily updated. We make adjustments as we go by identifying simple solutions to expensive problems.

I knew what we were doing was not new or innovative, because traditional IT departments had been doing this for years. The problem was that in our zeal to keep surveillance segregated from IT, we had become conditioned to buying our hardware and software from the VMS provider through an integrator.

I am sure a number of IT directors weighed in on the subject and tried to talk us off the ledge by proposing other solutions that were fairly standard in their world. I am also sure they were told to mind their own business because this was how things were done in surveillance. It was easier this way.

Before my brothers and sisters in surveillance call me out, I am not suggesting that IT has oversight of surveillance. I am merely suggesting that if you don’t have the in-house technical knowledge to navigate such a project, you either have to obtain that knowledge or use someone in IT who already possesses the knowledge to help you make a sound business decision for your organization.

Basic Benefits

The immediate benefit of a technology-agnostic approach to surveillance is the cost of ownership. Using a very conservative estimate, we saved over 50 percent on a single project. In addition, we have a better product for half the cost, because we specified the hardware ourselves and used the latest technology to help future-proof our network.

All of this translates into results for our property by having a stable platform that is dependable and scalable. This has given the surveillance department the tools they need to provide information to the rest of the operation in an accurate and efficient manner. When we talk about value, it has to be more than perceived; it has to be tangible and quantified. By re-examining your operation, there are a number of ways this can be accomplished; and for me, a technology-agnostic approach is just one of many that makes sense for our business.

There isn’t a “one size fits all” approach. Whether you use a single-source platform and an integrator or go a little rogue by doing it yourself, you have options. As a stakeholder in your operation, you are responsible for weighing these options and making the best decision for your property.

Darrin Hoke is the director of surveillance at L'Auberge du Lac Hotel & Casino in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Hoke has also held various positions in security management, investigations and law enforcement, and  has developed a number of surveillance classes and programs over the past 10 years as a regular instructor with the University of Nevada, Reno gaming management division.