The future of decoupling: What can we learn from IT?

Inavate’s Tim Kridel (TK) sits down with Mark Grassi (MG), principal consultant, The Sextant Group/NV5 Global to discuss the move off of purpose-built networks, the considerations and challenges of hardware-software decoupling and the lessons to be learned from the IT world.

Back in January 2020, Inavate explored why AV vendors are drawn to off-the-shelf hardware, with the transition to AV applications operating off of purpose-built networks picking up pace. 

Inavate also explored the transition to COTS to discover what hardware-software decoupling can offer the industry. 

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. QSC showcasing future AV and control processing at ISE 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?

MG: I see this as one of the most important things an integrator and/or consultant can do to differentiate themselves as the industry continues to make this shift from purpose-built hardware to an enterprise LAN. The first and foremost skill that designers will need is to better understand network architecture, infrastructure, and security. 

Once the network is designed properly, our industry has to understand how to properly configure, manage, and maintain these products. Organisations like COMPTIA provide great agnostic training to help get organizations started. Manufacturer-specific trainings from companies such as Cisco or Extreme Networks are also very valuable and many of the skills learned there can easily transferred while working with other manufactures equipment. 

Another thing to realise is that we can now look outside of our industry to find the appropriate skill sets needed. Integrators would be wise to be looking into talent from the IT industry for their next hires and have positions that are specific to network configurations, specification, and management. 

From the integrator’s perspective, I would say it would be valuable for their staff to have knowledge of Linux operating systems. They might not find themselves developing software as that will come from the manufacturers. However, working in a Linux environment is quite a bit different than Windows and they should know how to configure and troubleshoot the hardware. 

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? 

MG: Potentially? A lot! Or absolutely none. Although the software and hardware have begun the decoupling process, there are and will continue to be hardware minimum specifications in order to support the application. It all will boil down to who has provided the hardware and who is maintaining the hardware. If there are any specific services or applications that need to be turned on or off to support the application running on that hardware the manufacturer has to be very clear on this matter.  

TK: Are there any lessons that pro AV can take from the IT world regarding software development, support, etc.? For example, is it possible that some vendors might look to rush out software before it’s ready and rely on updates and patches that actually take up more development in the long term? If so, how might this affect integrators (positively and negatively), such as with project delivery, or as a managed service opportunity where the integrator handles patches and updates? 

MG: I think our industry has a huge growth potential in this realm. IT teams regularly have all hardware pre-configured, and when it shows up, it is self-aware and will configure itself for the particular situation. Every device is able to be managed and monitored from a central point, local or from afar. 

This is where our industry needs to look to and is able to grow. Installations can be done much smoother and can give much less headaches. Real help desks and pre-emptive monitoring can happen and should happen. Managed services are most definitely the thing that will keep the good integrators going over the next generation of AV. 

TK: QSC chose the Dell EMC PowerEdge R730 server. 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.?

MG: 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 think there will always be a minimum hardware specification. I think manufacturers will continue to push and request specific pieces of hardware that they have tested and confirmed to limit their exposure and potential issues to the project. 

TK: Any other thoughts?

MG: Control software development is changing rapidly, and the AV integration world needs to catch up. With the proliferation of touch-first devices our systems are being scrutinised like never before. Good UX design (which is a word rarely used in our industry) and high-level programming capabilities is a must for a successful integrator. 
I think all would be wise to start looking outside of our industry for these skill sets, for 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.