Software-defined AV

QSC’s recent deal with Dell puts AV software on standard IT infrastructure. Tim Kridel investigates whether this signals a trend that could shake up pro AV.

The AV-IT convergence trend has made IP a familiar term. But another, emerging trend is expanding the definition from “internet protocol” to “intellectual property” in a change that could transform the entire AV industry.

If that shakeup plays out the way some envision, we might look back at ISE 2017 as a milestone. That’s when QSC demoed its fourth-generation Q-Sys software running on an off-the-shelf Dell EMC PowerEdge R730 server. 

Press releases often aren’t worth quoting at length, but QSC’s is an exception for the way it sums up many of the potential industry-wide changes that could occur if more AV infrastructure products migrate from purpose-built boxes to commodity off-the-shelf (COTS) processors and servers.

“The Q-Sys Platform uses standard Intel processing, Linux operating system services and IEEE networking protocols,” QSC said in the release announcing the demo. “The technology [decouples] existing Q-Sys software from proprietary hardware and creates an architecture where centralised AVC processing can live in the data centre. 
“Does [COTS] open up opportunities to do different types of sales, more opex than capex? That certainly presents itself.”

“Now processing intensive features such as AEC and feedback suppression can become a shared resource for any meeting room across the enterprise. This, combined with a portfolio of cost-effective meeting room I/O peripherals, allows users to reliably distribute content and control using existing IT network infrastructure.”

COTS and hosted AV

The COTS shift has been underway for years on the endpoint side, such as video collaboration software for PCs and tablets. Q-Sys is an example of how the COTS migration is extending to infrastructure, too. 

For AV vendors, one benefit from migrating to COTS hardware is that they’re no longer footing the bill for developing that gear.

“The move to software-defined platforms has strong traction within the IT domain as the sheer processing power and speed of commodity processors and networks can match purpose-engineered chips for mainstream applications,” says Justin Harding, Hewshott IT consultant. “There are strong commercial gains moving to commodity hardware components as they are easily sourced and better priced due to production volumes compared to specialised componentry.”

Telecom is further ahead in migrating to COTS, so it offers clues about how the trend might play out in AV. For example, many telecom vendors now offer mobile telephony infrastructure that runs on the same servers and routers that enterprises buy. That change enables data centre operators to start hosting mobile operators’ infrastructure just as they do any other enterprise platform. So pro AV software running on COTS IT gear could enable integrators—and vendors—to offer a wider range of managed cloud services.
People at computers writing code
“AV vendors could further align AV platforms within the IT domain by virtualising their systems and taking advantage of commodity hardware platforms,” Harding says. “This would provide improvements in hardware support and could lead to annuity revenue models for software-assurance (software upgrades) like the IT industry has had for approximately three decades. This would then lead to more platforms being maintained at the newest software standard and reduced support issues relating to older software and hardware.”
"AV vendors could further align AV platforms within the IT domain by virtualising their systems and taking advantage of commodity hardware platforms.”

QSC has heard a lot of questions about how COTS might change the way AV is sold.

“There have been questions about sales models,” says Martin Barbour, QSC product manager for installed systems. “Does this open up opportunities to do different types of sales, more opex than capex? That certainly presents itself.”

Business case for COTS

The size of the managed service opportunity depends partly on how many other AV vendors go the COTS infrastructure route. Some analysts believe more will.

“QSC’s deal with Dell reflects a market mainstream where more AV vendors are decoupling existing software from proprietary hardware and offering a centralised management system to process it in the data centre,” says Po Li, IHS Markit senior analyst. “AV processing (store, package, deliver) vendors are moving to this standard mainstream.” 

One reason for this outlook is that shrinking hardware margins will force more vendors to focus on software as their profit centre. With IT vendors such as Dell and Intel effectively footing the R&D bill on the hardware side, AV vendors could plough that saving into software R&D to enable new differentiation and margin opportunities.

“The streaming media market exhibits broadly flat growth, even as storage needs are increasing dramatically,” Po says. “This value stasis reflects product maturity, high competition and price erosion. Components of the media equipment chain are migrating to the cloud, which is depressing hardware sales but catalysing a new generation of high-efficiency, high-value, software/software-defined servers, which can then be sold standalone or with as-a-service (aaS) business models.”

For vendors and integrators alike, the balance sheet is another potential reason to focus on software and managed services. Some customers are in verticals, or subject to tax laws, that make opex preferable over capex, which in turn makes them receptive to managed services. 

“The major benefits are simplicity, flexibility, reliability and cost-efficiency, particularly for the AV industry and global enterprises with AV needs,” Po says. “After Amazon Web Services demonstrated a great success in its aaS business model, vendors and buyers from various industries whom have AV-related needs tasted the importance of deploying agile, simple and low-cost business models. 

“They are gaining more room to move, add, change and automate the process if deploying or switching to an opex-centric operating model. Vendors are more effective to support, distribute and upgrade current software to the next level and on the other side, buyers don’t need to lock in to a massive capex investment before planning to launch a new content or AV-related programme.”

Winning over IT

Using COTS infrastructure could also help vendors and integrators sell to IT departments that are responsible for AV, too. If familiarity breeds content, then AV solutions that use major IT brands such as Dell and HP could have a competitive edge. 

“Breaking down the barriers between AV and IT will stimulate additional acceptance and use of AV systems within general technology environments,” says Hewshott’s Harding. “The separation of these technology domains is virtually non-existent with the widespread adoption of audio and video streaming within deployments. AV integrators must now understand networking and identity management technologies, and IT integrators must understand video and audio technologies.”

QSC says its relationship with Dell is attracting interest from IT folks.

“We are already having conversations with a whole new group of people,” Barbour says. “These are IT people at the big corporate companies, and integrators and consultants, who now recognise that Q-Sys is very different from everything else in the market. 

“Those new people, the ones perhaps with an IT background, are completely unfazed by this move to off-the-shelf hardware. Their reaction is typically: ‘Of course you would do this. It makes perfect sense.’ That’s great validation of the direction that the Q-Sys engineers chose to take ten years ago when development on the platform began. As our industry becomes more involved with IT, the customer base will expect solutions like this, and they’ll be demanding them from the market.” 

Newcomers also bring new questions, many of which are based on how IT has been doing things for years.

“This introduction has posed a huge range of questions from the market, including: ‘Can I run it as a virtual machine? Can I buy your software and run it on my own server? Can I host it in the Cloud?’” Barbour says. “It has become obvious that this announcement has opened people’s eyes to new paradigms in how they can design and deploy systems, which is really exciting from a manufacturer’s perspective. 

“We feel our industry is on the cusp of a major transition whereby processing becomes commoditised, and the differentiator between vendors is the software layer running on those processors, along with the AVC-specific endpoints that the AV industry will continue to manufacture.”

New skills and sales channels?

Integrators won’t necessarily need additional IT skills to sell and support COTS AV infrastructure. In cases where they do, they could partner with an IT firm rather than staffing up with people who know how, to, say, code in Python.

“There are a lot of opportunities for partnerships, where you don’t need to be the Python expert,” says J.P. Bonin, The Sextant Group senior consultant. “You can get an understanding of what the client’s needs are and communicate what needs to be done [to the partner], but the skill set is understanding what components work best together to deliver the client a value add.” 

At least in the case of Q-Sys, integrators don’t face a big learning curve.

“We’ve worked very hard to make our solution look and behave like the traditional products, to make it easy to transition,” Barbour says. “The design environment is very familiar. The capabilities are very familiar, although the capabilities far exceed those of more traditional systems. 

“It’s more on the support and familiarity with IT technologies in terms that this is an IT product that goes on an IT network. But those challenges are not unique to using off-the-shelf products.” 

Another common question is whether more COTS will mean more IT firms in AV. Time will tell, but it’s unlikely that AV integrators will be muscled into the minority.
Ethernet cable
“We feel the existing AV sales channel is extremely important and also very valuable,” Barbour says. “The IP that integrators and consultants bring is incredibly important for the successful implementation of systems like this. So we’re working very hard to maintain business as usual. 

“Further down the line, might you see IT VARs selling AV systems? They already are.” 
“The streaming media market exhibits broadly flat growth, even as storage needs are increasing dramatically.”

COTS could mean more competition on the vendor side if it makes it easier for IT manufacturers to expand into AV.  

“If you’re coming to market now and haven’t had a big presence in the market, software might be a good option because it allows you to get somewhere very quickly,” says Rainer Stiehl, Extron vice president of marketing for Europe. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you have every feature your competitor has, but it does allow you to put a product in front of a customer to address whatever perceived need there is.” 

Migration takes time and money 

For AV vendors, developing products to run on COTS gear isn’t quick, easy or cheap. The challenges aren’t just technical, such as rewriting code, but also ensuring steady cash flow to fund a project whose ROI is years off.

“It was a very difficult time,” Barbour says about the Q-Sys project. “There were a number of years of development prior to shipping that went into getting this product off the ground. We were very lucky that we had multiple engineering teams in-house: a team dedicated to developing and supporting our existing network and DSP products that were generating income, as well as a team to develop this new Intel-based solution. That’s a unique situation.” 

New vendors would face their own set of challenges because even if using COTS makes hardware less of a barrier to entry, they still have to develop the software. One possibility is to buy an AV vendor’s software on a white-label basis—or buy the entire vendor to get its IP to get into AV.  

But no matter how software-centric pro AV becomes in endpoints and infrastructure, there will always be a need for at least some purpose-built hardware.

“There’s still a lot of hardware that goes into spaces,” Stiehl says. “At Extron, I don’t think we see that changing a lot. Sometimes it takes a combination of software and hardware to make any system work.” 

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