Network switches: Flick the right switch

Network switches have become a vital part of the chain in AV projects, but different approaches to how they are sold are causing issues out in the field. Paul Milligan reports.

As AV projects continue to gravitate towards the IT network, so the influence of the humble network switch continues to grow. One interesting element of this trend is that it’s driven several IT companies to look towards the AV world for the first time.
At the moment there are two approaches to do that. The firstis the low investment option, IT manufacturers give AV buyers products already in their portfolio because well ‘a switch is a switch’ isn’t it? The other approach is to research what the AV sector actually needs from a network switch and provide products to match. This approach requires more time and money invested in it but will ultimately yield better results. There is no doubt that the first approach is out in the field and causing multiple issues.

Anders Jørgensen, project manager at Danish AV consultancy Stouenborg is one who has suffered on a series of recent projects; switches not compatible with products as advertised, endless firmware updates which don’t actually solve the issue, and support staff slow to respond to issues through a lack of knowledge or reluctance to replicate the problem accurately. On one project a network switch problem accumulated more than 600 emails and 400 man hours to solve he says. “If you purchase a car that says it can drive 240kph, you expect someone has tested the car to exactly do that,” says Jørgensen. “The same goes if I have a network switch that says it can handle multicast streams across different switches and deal with IGMP Plus, I expect it to work and that was the case on these switches. It didn't work.”

There are two factors causing issues, one on each side of the equation; a lack of detailed IT knowledge from the AV sector
in picking the right product or forcing a product to do something it was never designed to do, and manufacturers promising their network switch can do it all, when that’s far from the truth. The problem with gaining IT knowledge is that it’s a constantly moving target says Jørgensen. “What you needed to know in 2018 and need to know today has changed. Now you need to have complex knowledge about IT infrastructure in order to operate a system where you have both standard AES67 UDP commands and multicast streams and unicast streams and the internet and how to set up that whole system. That kind of knowledge is more demanding and is more difficult to handle.”

It's something manufacturers of network switches are aware of too. “One thing that is evident from working in IT is there is a huge skillset gap for networking within AV as opposed to IT,” says Keiran Purdie, pro-AV channel manager, business development manager and technical pre-sales manager, Netgear. “For a lot of people who aren't involved within networking it seems very simple, or it should be very simple. And there is a subset of IT that has been delivering to AV for years that have made it appear simpler than it is. In reality the protocols used within networking for AV are generally stuff that isn't used massively within IT networks because of the problems it causes. Multicast is a huge thing that is declined by IT managers and stripped out of the network because of the problems it can cause. AV deployments can get very big, very quickly. From that perspective I think there’s a lot more leaning on us in terms of how we deliver that, be it support, pre-sales, post-sales, we do a lot more training with partners than we’ve ever done just from the IT world.”

As much as we all talk about AV and IT convergence, the two worlds are different says Bart Swinnen, CEO from Belgian AV networking company Luminex, and that is why his company is keen to stress it comes from the AV world, not IT. “I do think AV installs and applications bring up different issues than IT departments are used to coping with, certainly on the time sensitive protocols being used. The real-time aspect is vital, it’s not like waiting for five seconds for a YouTube movie to load when you're playing out live audio or live video, it's a different challenge.” It’s this reason why Luminex has made a dedicated switch optimised for AV applications he adds.

So if issues do occur on-site with a network switch, what are the manufacturers prepared to do to help? Are they able to replicate a large network to diagnose a specific problem for example? Some are. Netgear has recently finished its biggest ever pre-stage, with more than 200 SDVoE endpoints for a partner in London which was held in its UK office before it went to site. “We do a lot of validation up front, with different manufacturers and different protocols, and in these validations of interoperability tests we try to build up larger systems,” adds Swinnen. To provide accurate support on-site he says, you must look at the bigger picture, and coming at it from an AV standpoint (rather than IT) helps here. “Because it’s a network switch working in the network, you're in the middle of an application and you’re transporting data. It's so easy to say there's something wrong with the network, but before you can troubleshoot anything you have to understand the complete application. And that's why we do not have support engineers, we call them application specialists. They have much more knowledge about the applications around the network than purely the (network) switch. That's a big difference with an IT switch, where you get support from a manufacturer that knows exactly what bits and bytes do in a switch, but not necessarily understand what the application is because often the troubleshooting you need to do in whether it's a small or a large setup has to do with the complete application to work together.”

One strand running through all these different issues is interoperability, after all that is a key element of a network switch, it joins different AV technologies together. Something that muddies the water greatly is protocols, and the sheer number of them. “You want to benefit from the ecosystems, if you have a Shure Microflex microphone and an audio bridge from Vaddio, and a projector and a Crestron NVX system, in order to benefit from that ecosystem you need to have four different protocols running. So your switch needs to be able to handle all that and make sure those protocols are not working against each other,” says Jørgensen. Does the sheer number of different protocols make it impossible for vendors to give buyers what they want? “We try and get as much in there as possible. We've just put AVB, which has made a bit of a resurgence in the last few years, back onto our new AV line of switches. But it is hard, we don't do certain PTP stuff when you look at SMPTE, we don't adhere to it because it's not as popular in this space. We have to be balanced,” says Purdie.

Multiple standards in AV aren’t going away says Swinnen, so we all just have to deal with the hand we’ve been dealt. “The dream of having just one standard, and if we support that will cover everything, is never going to happen. So, for manufacturers it's mainly following up what the industry is doing.”

Finally, would having a badge on a network switch saying ‘approved by Crestron’ for example help integrators make the right choice in the first place? “I certainly hope so because we've spent the last four years doing that,” says Netgear’s Purdie. “If you're buying a product, a switch is a switch is a switch, there's so many of them, we sell over 100 different switches. They all look very similar, sound similar, they all deliver protocols that look very similar. But ultimately, you can plug one in from another one and it will deliver completely different results. And for you to know as a consultant or an integrator, that I don't have to worry, or I don't have to go through seven stages of pain to work out if this product is actually going to work with Crestron.” It sounds like this is one issue that’s going to get addressed sooner rather than later according to Luminex’s Swinnen; “Having a label for the end user is one checkbox ticked towards having the confidence that product will work. If we can give our clients confidence and we have less support to do then it's something that works for both sides.


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