DIY: Video Surveillance

DISCLAIMER: I believe in writing posts that are informative/helpful and NOT a sales pitch, I also believe in full disclosure. In this article I highlight some vendors/companies that I have worked with that have provided solid technical/engineering and sales assistance for these types of projects. I am NOT endorsing them, paid by them to “advertise” their services or anything like that. I am simply providing some “reference” companies that provide solid service, doesn’t mean your experience will be the same and I would hope you would still run these vendors through your normal “vetting” process. 

With the latest trends of “everything networked” it just makes sense that video surveillance would be next. NetworkWorld is even recognizing this important trend and responsibility increase to the IT group. With that said, how do we “the IT group” provide this new technology to our companies while staying on budget and creating a scalable solution?

Let’s step back just a bit, in the “old days” you had a series of low resolution cameras connected via analog video cables to a proprietary tape or disk based recording unit, you probably had some kind of monitor to view recordings and could painstakingly go back and look at recorded video, you maybe had the ability for 14-30 days of archive footage and little/no remote viewing/monitoring. You probably also may have had a staff dedicated to watching the cameras as well as monitoring the recordings. Expansion/changes to the system were painful, expensive and often times meant “rip and replace”. That was the past though, today’s systems are all IP based running over commodity CAT5e cable plant, easily expandable, much higher quality/resolution and run from commodity server platforms with easy/quick disk access. Remote monitoring/viewing is the standard.

So what does a “modern” video surveillance system look like today? All systems today basically consist of the following components:

– Camera. These range from low cost 1MP units all the way up to expensive high megapixel units. There are units that work well in low-light/harsh environments, those that work great in offices, etc. Bottom line is there are a ton of options from a variety of manufacturers, this is the one place where some knowledge of the different cameras, lenses and other options is key to make sure you get the right camera for the right areas. Most of the larger IP camera makers will have dedicated engineering sales staff to help with the selection of the proper camera/equipment for the various areas you need to cover. Usually some Google Maps, a Facetime walkthrough, etc. will help show the engineer the environment and help ensure you get the right equipment. I have had great engineering and sales experience with MidwestSurveillance, they are the “internet” wing of a systems integrator, they include “free” design consultation with a designer for your purchase, good pricing and great after-sales support.

– NVR (Network Video Recorder). This is the device responsible for “pulling” your camera’s streams, recording them and applying “logic” to all those cameras. There are a variety of options from dedicated physical appliances to software that you install on commodity hardware. Most of these are licensed per camera and usually have a “max” camera amount they can support. Whether it is an appliance or software program it will need a large portion of speedy, available storage. The amount of storage you will need will depend on a host of parameters including the resolution at which you run your camera, the type of recording (always on vs. motion only), the desired days of retention, etc. There are some great resources out there for getting some rough numbers to use for this purpose. Axis has a great design tool here: Axis Design Tool
VideoInsight (NVR maker) has a great planning tool here

– Network Infrastructure. Since everything is IP based this is just another service on your network like video conferencing, VOIP, etc. A dedicated VLAN is always recommended as well as proper address space planning, ACL/security for who/what can access that VLAN, etc. Since most of the IP cameras are PoE powered, having a network of PoE-ready switches is important. Yes, you can buy midspan units from companies but why introduce the extra complexity/failure points to your environment; solid PoE switches are the way to go! You will also need CAT5e cabling to any/all locations where you want cameras, wireless can be useful in certain areas but again, avoid complexity/failure points and stick to wired where possible!

There are additional components such as mounts that need to be factored in but those are the “base” components of your standard IP video system. As an IT group though we must go beyond these basic components and apply some requirements to this lose collection of components!

– First and foremost, a formal policy should be established outlining some of the basics. What is the goal of this system? Who is in charge of monitoring, taking action against abuses, etc? How long do we need to keep footage for?

– Design a commodity based system. Don’t buy into specialized NVR systems that only work with particular cameras! Stick to current IT trends, commodity devices running powerful software! A software NVR solution is best as you can use commodity servers/storage (and even use your existing VMWare environment!) and will work with a variety of IP camera manufacturers.

– Identify who will do monitoring of the system and provide them with the necessary tools. This could consist of something simple like a TV in their office pulling feeds from the NVR, mobile apps., etc. Cameras do no good if someone is not watching and acting on what is happening in your organization!

– Many of the software NVRs have Active Directory/LDAP integration allowing you to designate who has access to what camera, make sure this is part of your solution!

– You need to identify the optimal camera resolution/quality for your cameras, this will help with identifying not only your storage requirements but also your bandwidth requirements. Depending on your network setup, available backbone bandwidth and other factors will determine some of these settings. Keep in mind each camera will be sending its video stream back to the NVR, this may be only a few hundred KBit/s all the way up to multiple megs of video depending on your settings. Your network and more important your site/building uplinks need to be able to handle this load appropriately. In single site or private fiber sites this will be less of an issue than those using VPN/bandwidth-constrained sites.

There are a lot of data points needing to be collected before a good solution can come together, by using commodity components though you will put yourself in a good position to grow/change the solution. A pretty flexible solution would consist of the following below, this is not including infrastructure components like PoE switches and cabling:

– Axis IP Cameras. Axis is one of the leaders in this space, they have a lot of engineering/pre-sales talent both in-house and through resellers to help design your solution, they have very solid products with a range of features/price points to accommodate, they also due to their market position have a ton of compatibility with most NVR solutions.

– VideoInsight NVR. A Windows-software NVR solution, uses commodity server/storage infrastructure, can even be virtualized. Supports over 100 camera manufacturers, has mobile apps., Active Directory security integration, has a distributed architecture then can be expanded as the size of the project increases, integration with access control/3rd party products, a stand alone VideoWall product that can be used on a commodity PC to drive monitoring video walls for security personnel and more. Good support and sales assistance as well.

This is just one example of a low-cost, flexible/expandable system to bring video surveillance into your company. Yes there are Costco 4 camera systems out there but most don’t have the quality, features set or expansion abilities of these systems, an enterprise IP system is needed for an enterprise!


Author: Travis Kensil

Director of IT. Husband and father. Michigan beachbum.

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