Future skills: The turning tides of integrator requirements

The AV industry is moving ever closer to IT in both terms of crossover technologies and skills, redefining the job description and qualifications needed to thrive. Inavate's Tim Kridel speaks to Jamie Trader, Harman International vice president of video and control on essential IT skills for integrators, hardware-software decoupling and the future of software flexibility for AV vendors.

TK: Over the past 20 years, AV applications have moved off of purpose-built networks and onto IT networks, such as the client’s enterprise LAN. To accommodate this trend, many integrators got IT certifications such CCNA and MCSE. https://bit.ly/2GxcsmD is an example of another emerging trend, where AV software is being moved off of purpose-built hardware and onto COTS IT gear. What kinds of IT certifications and skills (e.g., coding) will AV integrators and consultants need to have in order to accommodate this latest trend?

JT: Whether applications are running on purpose-built hardware or on commoditised computing platforms, there will always be training and certifications that support the AV application itself. The migration to computing platforms, then, really only adds justification for training and certifications directly related to the OS, network, and security requirements of those platforms. 

AV integrators, for a long time now, have been requiring key technical personnel to achieve MS productivity certifications.  Because it’s critical to their business to be able to communicate with necessary stakeholders through a common understanding of Exchange Server, SQL Server, SharePoint Server, Teams, Office 365 identities, requirements, and services, etc.  

But certification training for Cloud Platform and Infrastructure technologies are becoming increasingly prevalent in our channel now.  AWS, Cisco, and Microsoft offers various certification tracks to level set competencies supporting AWS, Azure, Windows Server, software defined data centres, server infrastructures, private and hybrid clouds, and DevOps to name a few.  Cloud and Infrastructure really is the new “mainstream” for IT certifications.

That’s not to say, though, that an AV integrator’s ability to be successful will depend on them becoming OS, Network, Cloud, or Security Experts.  The expertise that AV integrators will present to market will depend highly on the market they serve. 

For instance, AV integrators that focus purely on Corporate AV will find themselves spending more time demonstrating competencies that align to, and support, customer work streams – more so than AV based expertise. 

Why?  It’s simple.  AV in the corporate space is about delivering Productivity. And AV expertise is being built more directly into customer productivity applications themselves, thereby requiring less AV-specialised talent. 

What’s becoming more important in this space is the ability to sell-through value in a non-capitalised financial model, deliver turn-key systems with project management discipline (PMP certification), and then provide day 2 support with SLA-defined support contract arrangements (ITIL training and certifications).

 AV integrators, however, that serve stadia, arenas, theatre, and retail fundamentally deliver experiential impact.  End customers that acquire experiential technology have a deeper need to contract expertise in the sciences that serve those experiences.  

Acoustics, digital signal processing, visual clarity all need to be optimised to create those enhanced experiences – and the traditional AV certifications will continue to dominate this space. The fact that a COTS computing platform can be used to run the AV application doesn’t necessarily mean that the device will be installed and managed as a non-AV appliance in a converged data network. 

Most installations today, in these experiential spaces, see PC based appliances still installed as dedicated AV appliances.

TK: What considerations and challenges does this hardware-software decoupling trend create for AV vendors? For example, when a vendor no longer controls the hardware, what additional steps does it have to take to ensure that there aren’t bugs and other problems when launching a new software product, or issuing a major update to an existing one? 

JT: As imaginable, there are many productisation challenges we have to evaluate and handle when decoupling software from hardware. Resource availability, security, and performance consistency are the three most critical factors that determine what we decouple and what we 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. 

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 VMs) 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.  

Audio Digital Signal Processing (DSP) applications, however, add a degree of time sensitivity and additional processing demand that 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. 

Not setting the expectation correctly can lead to customers loading additional applications that may interfere with timing or fidelity performance.  Hi resolution, high frame rate video encoding is a more exaggerated challenge than audio, requiring so much more dedicated processor time and bandwidth. 

It’s why, today, software based video encoders are only seen in general productivity and monitoring applications where there is a pretty low threshold for performance expectation.

Of course, there’s always increased security vulnerabilities when leveraging OTS OS’s – as compared to dedicated appliances.  Not only for the AV application running on the device…but the device itself.  This is why we spend so much time platforming our security architecture – before building out the AV application itself. 

In fact, our Secure Linux project predated our first release against our new AV cloud architecture by nearly 7 innovation cycles. Harman solutions are known worldwide for strictest adherence to security standards. 

That is why we’re the most trusted OS in automotive infotainment systems and the most trusted video and control solution in the most sensitive DoD environments including the White House, Pentagon, NATO, and Australia’s Defence Dept.

Whether you’re controlling the hardware or not, your application has to perform, it has to be reliable, and it has to be safe. 

TK: Is it possible that in the future, some AV vendors will allow integrators and end users to run their software on whatever hardware they choose? Or is specifying certain hardware products necessary for ensuring performance, QoS, etc.? Maybe there are lessons to be learned from the IT world. For example, Apple sees controlling both hardware and software as key for controlling the user experience, whereas Microsoft doesn’t. I suppose an AV vendor could say to integrators and end users: “Here are the server models we’ve tested our software on. If you use other models, there may be issues.”

JT: Obviously – 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.  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.

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