AV vendors drawn to off-the-shelf hardware

As AMX, QSC and others increase the use of off-the-shelf IT hardware, Tim Kridel explores the challenges and opportunities for integrators, vendors and end users.

This January marks three years since QSC announced plans to port its Q-SYS software onto the Dell EMC PowerEdge R730, an off-the-shelf server used for a wide variety of enterprise applications, including medical imaging and computer-assisted design. It’s another milestone in the industry’s slow migration away from purpose-built hardware, but opinions vary about what the trend means over the long haul. 

For example, the December 2019 Inavate explored why and how pro AV could migrate toward an as-a-service (AVaaS) business model. If more AV vendors begin using commodity off-the-shelf (COTS) IT gear, standard IT programming languages and open software, it could help drive the AVaaS market. 

“The move to non-proprietary software languages will have huge benefits, in my view,” says Ben Jacobs, Vanti software developer. “In fact, this trend is not just related to COTS. 

“For example, Crestron now allows you to run C# code on their custom hardware. This opens up new possibilities and allows those with software experience to create richer experiences and more easily follow programming industry standards.”

Another possibility is extending the life of products that AV vendors have discontinued, but that clients don’t want to retire.  

“Commoditised computing power and freely available software can help breathe new life into these systems by acting as a bridge that integrates new features with an existing infrastructure,” says Patrick Murray, a veteran AMX and Creston programmer who founded Catch Technologies and hosts the Software Defined Survival podcast. 

“An example would be integrating Alexa with a Crestron 2-Series processor. The 2 Series does not natively support Alexa. But an integrator could install a bridge device that allows the older technology to communicate with the new.”

Controlling someone else’s hardware
When AV vendors use COTS IT gear, (See Inavate's investigation into COTS gear) it’s sometimes referred to as “decoupling,” roughly meaning that the software can be run on more than just one manufacturer’s hardware. But how many more? 

Today, videoconferencing clients such as Zoom are designed to run on nearly any PC. This flexibility benefits collaboration vendors by providing a bigger addressable market because enterprises can use hardware they already own. This lowers the barrier to adoption.

So in the future, could infrastructure platforms such as Q-SYS run on any IT vendor’s server—including one that an enterprise might already have sitting in its data centre? The answer depends partly on how much hardware control the AV vendor needs to ensure its platform meets performance, user experience and other criteria. 
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“Many AV vendors will still have some control over hardware as they can choose the components even if they don’t design them,” says Sanju Khatri, IHS Markit director of consulting for pro AV and consumer electronics. “Those that are truly divorced from hardware will be software vendors designing for platforms akin to apps on a phone.”

Vendors can achieve a certain level of control by testing a variety of COTS hardware to create a list of validated gear.

“Although we don’t build any of it, we feel that we’re very much in control of the hardware product,” says Martin Barbour, QSC product manager for installed systems. “We worked closely with Dell engineering and purposely selected the collection of hardware components, in addition to the lower level BIOS configuration, to give us a hardware platform that provides exactly the performance we need.”

Control also is an ongoing process because IT hardware evolves much more frequently than AV gear. In fact, one reason why AV vendors like the COTS model is because they can leverage IT vendors’ hardware R&D instead funding it themselves. 

“Servers are often in the two- to three-year range before they’re refreshed,” Barbour says. “Sometimes there are long-life models that are available for up to five years, but those are uncommon. That’s in stark contrast to the AV space, where the typical hardware product is expected to remain available for around 10 years or more.

“We wanted to illustrate that by moving to a pure, software-defined paradigm, we didn’t have to worry about reinventing the hardware delivery component of the product every decade. We could maintain a gradually evolving software experience but leverage rapid IT technology advancements for the hardware, ultimately keeping consistency for our users over a much longer timeframe.”

For example, QSC subsequently moved Q-SYS to the Dell R740 when that model arrived.

“There was no big marketing push, no big fanfare, to illustrate that a hardware revision can be totally transparent from a user perspective,” Barbour says. 

The end of box sales?
Even if a customer already has an R730 or R740, it can’t simply buy Q-SYS and load it onto one of those boxes. As a result, it’s an example of how the decoupling trend doesn’t necessarily mean the end of box sales—and their margins—for vendors and integrators.

“There’s complex hardware and BIOS configuration, software feature keys, extensive test and qualification parameters for Q-SYS itself, as well as a specific business model that includes support from both QSC and Dell,” Barbour says. “For this reason, the Q-SYS Core 5200 remains a hardware product that is purchased from QSC.”
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Harman International, meanwhile, focuses on resource availability, security and performance consistency when deciding which products to decouple and which ones to keep on purpose-built platforms. 

“The more processor-intensive the application, the higher the likelihood that performance can be impacted in ways that an end consumer might not anticipate,” says Jamie Trader, vice president of video and control. “For instance, control applications are very lightweight. 

“Control applications like AMX’s Resource Management Suite (the market’s first server-based AV control application) have been available for COTS hardware and virtual machines for nearly two decades. Such lightweight applications are easy to share computing resources with, and the lack of intense time sensitivity makes performance disruptions invisible to the user.” [You can read a detailed Q&A with Trader here]

Audio DSP applications have time sensitivity and processing demands that make decoupling more challenging.  

“We, as manufacturers, have to consider how we set expectations for delivering a guaranteed ‘productised’ experience in a way that suggests to end customers that their server appliance running the application is no longer a general purpose server appliance; that it is now a dedicated AV appliance that just happens to be running on Linux, Windows, etc.” Trader says. 

More variables and wild cards
When a vendor no longer builds hardware, what additional steps does it have to take to ensure there aren’t bugs and other problems when launching a new software product, or issuing a major update to an existing one? For example, do integrators have to do their own testing to catch bugs that the vendor might have missed, or that the vendor couldn’t have anticipated because there are now so many potential hardware-software combinations?

These kinds of questions potentially dovetail with AVaaS. For example, an integrator’s managed service could include validating that a solution will work well on a customer’s new hardware.

“Where before firmware and the associated software is written for (and tested on) specific hardware by the vendor, when these are decoupled, more testing is certainly required,” says Vanti’s Jacobs. “I imagine to alleviate this to some extent, there will be suggested or supported hardware always available from the vendors. 

“This may require more collaboration between the vendors and the integrators. Perhaps vendors could give opportunities to test beta software and help reduce bugs in the final version. There needs to be open channels with the vendors for them to take feedback and bug reports.”

This collaboration is also one way for AV vendors to tell other integrators and customers: “Here are the server models we’ve tested our software on. If you use other models, there may be issues.”

“The goal is to empower the market to run applications on the hardware of their choice–providing we’re able to communicate an enforceable minimum performance spec,” says Harman’s Trader. “However, ensuring performance is only one factor that limits the achievement of that goal. A more significant factor is ensuring the ability to support.

“Just because a server may meet a performance spec doesn’t mean it’s done so with quality components. Having an AV support call centre that is optimised to support AV sciences (acoustics, DSP, traditional and IP video, etc.) means that there’s a low likelihood the call centre is going to be well versed on the nuanced performance characteristics of every component out there. The varied quality spectrum of manufactured processors, storage, memory and versioned operating systems all can arrive together in a unique server configuration that’s very difficult to support–even sometimes for the PC manufacturer themselves.” 

Even more IT skills required
Over the past 20 years, AV applications have moved from purpose-built networks and onto IT networks, such as the client’s enterprise LAN. To accommodate this trend, many integrators got IT certifications such Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE). 

The same could happen as AV systems become software-centric, with integrators adding IT programming skills to stay relevant. 

“As web apps and technologies continue to expand, I expect HTML, CSS and JavaScript to be widely used languages in AV in the coming years,” Jacobs says. “For example, Crestron have already been demoing HTML5 for use with their systems: bit.ly/305mRPz
“Similarly, C# and Java can already be used with Crestron and AMX, and I expect others to follow with existing industry standard programming languages. In terms of hardware, more IT-focused skills will be needed to support the hardware and associated systems.”

Linux, which Q-SYS uses, is emerging as another OS to master. 

“They might not find themselves developing software, as that will come from the manufacturers,” says Mark Grassi, principal consultant at The Sextant Group/NV5 Global. “However, working in a Linux environment is quite a bit different than Windows, and they should know how to configure and troubleshoot the hardware.

“Good UX design—which is a word rarely used in our industry—and high-level programming capabilities are a must for a successful integrator. I think all would be wise to start looking outside of our industry for these skill sets. Individuals with computer science degrees, experience with common computer languages such as C#, HTML and Python are going to be necessary to continue to push our industry forward.”

But one potential catch is that such skills are in chronically short supply, including in the IT industry. So integrators could have to pay a premium to lure those programmers away from their IT gigs. They also could pay to have some of their existing staff learn those languages, or rely on freelancers. 

“From a skills perspective, this opens up AV integrators to use traditional programmers, as well as up-skill existing AV programmers,” Jacobs says. “Those with existing AV knowledge will still have an advantage where the integrations come in.” 

Although mastering all those new skills might seem daunting, that isn’t necessarily the case. For example, JavaScript is widely used in IT, which means there’s no shortage of people and experiences to learn from.

“Crestron and AMX have huge databases of device drivers, but the developer community isn’t really incredibly strong when compared to something like JavaScript,” says Catch Technologies’ Murray. “So our software development kit is JavaScript. You have this huge resource of the development community and documentation to pull from. 

“Be curious and ready to learn. The information is out there.” 

Photo credits: polygraphus/Shutterstock.com & Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock.com

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