EDITORS CHOICE 11.11.20

Where next for networked AV?

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While AV over IP is well established as a means for signal transportation, there’s still a lot of untapped potential and even companies proficient with deployment, may still be finding their feet when it comes to realising the full possibilities of networked AV.

The transmission of audio, video and control signals over network cable infrastructure is here, it’s tried and tested, and forms at least some part of the majority of new, sizable AV projects. Many of the AV-over-IP systems and products available to integrators today have been through numerous cycles of development and some of their predecessors have been around for more than half a decade.

Eric Greenop, managing director of New Zealand integrator Asnet Technologies and president of the GPA (a global alliance of AV integrators), illustrates: “AV over IP is not considered as ‘high risk’ as it was two to three years ago as each of the mainstream manufacturers offer a solution.”

Although networked AV is established; AV integration firms still have a lot to navigate. Whether that’s new clients to sell to, additional stakeholders in a project, increased competition, or monetising the vast possibilities that the enhanced remote monitoring, management and data capture can offer; the landscape has changed dramatically.  

One such shift is when AV is considered as part of a project, as well as who it’s considered by. “A big difference is our AV customer,” confirms Greenop. “Ten years ago, our customer was the building manager, mostly non-technical. Increasingly now our customer is the IT department overseen through an IT project manager.”
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This shift places different technical requirements on the integrator, but it can also come with benefits to how AV is perceived. Michael Kottke, director of consultancy firm macom, believes that AV over IP means AV teams are more likely to be able to engage earlier in a project lifecycle than when AV was considered a more distinct and siloed part of a project. 

“AV over IP can contribute to increased awareness and earlier involvement of AV both within the project teams and the wider client organisation because it requires coordination and thorough assessment of network designs, network segregation and configuration, security in line with corporate standards and bandwidth management/quality of service. 

“These areas touch the core infrastructure of every business so the AV over IP technology can increase AV visibility within the enterprise. The earlier these items are being addressed the smoother, more beneficial and integrated the AV over IP deployment will be.”

Can networked AV deliver service revenue?

AV pros designing, installing and managing systems and products often look to a much larger and more established IT industry for inspiration, as well as an indication of where they might be heading. And one thing that’s ingrained there is remote maintenance, support and monitoring along with all the analysis that can go with the vast amounts of data gathered. 

If AV systems reside on networks there’s so much that can be handled remotely, surely AV integrators could gain lucrative service contracts? Some are, but the reality for many is a slow start and multiple hurdles in monetising the approach. 

According to Greenop this is “arguably the greatest underdelivered promise of AV over IP”. 

He continues: “A few manufacturers have their own systems for monitoring their own products e.g. Crestron XIO Cloud or AMX’s RMS. The ‘dream’ by services focused SI’s was probably that standard IT monitoring tools like Solar Winds would become de facto monitoring platforms. They are not really set up for this. Yes, with everything on the network, in theory this allows more remote maintenance but, often customers are reluctant to permit remote access.

“As an SI we have had to develop or adapt tools ourselves to provide cost effective monitoring and maintenance. In parallel, there is a land-grab underway with each vendor offering their own ‘walled garden’ of configuration, monitoring and maintenance tools which effectively opens a Pandora’s box where customers have to sign off and acceptance test each set of tools, encompassing network access control, data security, data sovereignty and acceptance of multi-tenant or on-premise architecture. Clearly it will take more time for this to mature.”

In a similar theme, Kottke believes the tools are there but they need to be built on to provide a suitable service offering. “There are a number of capable tools on the market that support integrated monitoring and maintenance,” he confirms. “But they require a dedicated project workstream to develop the features and ensure they fit into the client´s technical infrastructure and organisation. 

“This in return requires dedicated project manager resources and skill sets. Managing a project by looking at the whole lifecycle including service and support and thus monitoring/maintenance is not about hardware design, it is about a strategy to deliver a sustainable and continuously high user experience.”

Echoing Greenop’s earlier point, that remote access concerns on the customer side can be a barrier to SI’s delivering extra services, Peter Hunt, group CEO of international consultancy firm Hewshott, says security and remote access challenges are usually solved by large corporations handling these services in-house. That doesn’t sound good for AV pros wanting to add service revenue. However, he believes there is still untapped potential. 

“Monitoring and maintenance of AV systems has been around for years – I don’t think that IP has created this opportunity, but it has made it easier to handle centrally rather than at each client site,” he adds. “But it’s the uptake of alternative methods of monitoring that I think we’ve yet to see take off in a big way.”

Living alongside IT

While IT is often seen as an indicator of where AV is headed, it’s also been cited as a sector that will eventually swallow AV.  

Kottke cautions against being afraid: “We should embrace IT and create integrated and sustainable solutions for added customer value rather than being afraid of being swallowed by IT.”

But he does outline how the two disciplines are moving closer together: “Technologically the shift from complex, multi-layered AV to standards-based IT and from hardware to software is ongoing and will prevail beyond question. 

“This development does now require a shift in mindset of the AV industry. As we are moving into IT, we need to make sure we align with the IT world as much as possible not only in technology but in terms of manageability, design and deployment processes and service and support.”

For Hunt, AV is firmly within the IT space but that doesn’t mean that AV is going to disappear into IT due to some very distinct roles and some unique skills among AV professionals.

“AV has to be seen as a distinct technical discipline with different skillsets, values and methodologies,” he argues. “It can’t and shouldn’t be swallowed by IT.  Equally, the IT industry will never really appreciate the subtilties of how AV - light and sound - can influence, create or destroy emotional behaviour on a stage, in a meeting room, in a town hall. If the atmosphere is right, people step up and perform, but if it’s wrong, people will struggle.  All the while we can’t see or hear in binary, AV has a powerful role to play.”
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Speaking specifically about the corporate vertical, it’s important to note Greenop’s words of caution. IT is taking over traditional AV roles in some cases, but not because of how AV signals are distributed. 

“Organisations are standardising their rooms with arguably off the shelf kits in their chosen form of UC such as Teams Room Systems, Google Hangouts, Zoom and Cisco’s Webex, which generally cater for 80% of rooms. 

“Any opportunity for value an SI typically delivers is quickly reducing, likely resulting in fewer SI’s in the years to come. This limits the lesser progressive SI’s to add value only to customised spaces such as large format environments, managed environments, operations centres and auditoriums.”

Solving security

Wherever you stand on how the sectors will continue into the future, one thing’s for sure: AV pros need to understand their IT counterparts’ concerns and have the skills to operate side-by-side. 

One of the areas where IT and AV professionals have traditionally clashed is security. Over the years of AV over IP development, we’ve heard numerous tales of a lack of understanding of the concerns from both AV integrators and AV equipment vendors. 

But Kottke counters: “Most of the AV manufacturers have quickly integrated the security requirements into their product portfolios and are now providing a wide range of standards-based solutions to ensure data security.”

Hunt echoes his confidence: “I am not convinced these are issues any more.  Even as recently as a few years ago, there was definitely scepticism as the proliferation of AV equipment and services sought to operate in the IP space, but the security and network disruptions can (and are) overcome with decreasing resistance which is attributed to a number of reasons – AV maturing in this space, IT more accepting that AV is a network commodity, and the business bottom line seeking to streamline costs and build in future proofing.”

And Greenop’s experience is that, with the right approach from the integrator side, security concerns can easily be handled. “Outside of military applications, when taken on the journey customers have been accepting of AV being just another service on their network. Generally, government imposes the strictest rules but even these are normally fine following sensible conversations. 

“Typically, the most acceptable approach is to place AV on its own isolated VLAN with no layer 3 routing in or out, thus complying with polices related to network security e.g. 802.1x.”

Moving forward, whatever IT and AV professionals find to disagree on, it seems security may be a clash of the past. 

Photos: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com