To analog or to IP? That is the video surveillance question


The video surveillance question everyone asks: Why should I consider high-definition Internet Protocol cameras over analog closed circuit TV?

Surveillance technology has come a long way in the past few decades, jumping technological hurdles and rebounding with new innovations. But a picture is still just a picture, right?

Ask any professional photographer that question and you might get a fat lip! When it comes to video surveillance, it’s really all about information, not photography, but the underlying concept is the same. You use a device to capture the best image you can, and hope that it conveys the information you intended. So why IP over analog?

Analog video surveillance

Analog cameras look great, are cheap and only provide a good enough picture to catch someone doing something. There are high-end analog systems that are good cameras, provide day/night functionality, mechanical PTZ (Pan Tilt Zoom) functions and a plethora of interface options for optics. However, people rarely consider the following: cabling is expensive and generally requires two to three different types to communicate and power the cameras. They require a digital video recorder to record video, interface with other electronic security systems and communicate when something is wrong. They are pretty basic when it comes to internal smarts, allowing the DVR to do all the work.

Inside and out, analog and IP cameras are built similarly. They require a solid-state device to capture light through lenses, process that information into a form that can be recorded and viewed, and push that data down a wire. An analog camera can only push so much data down a coaxial cable, however. For an analog camera to be compatible with the general population of DVRs on the market, they all have to use the same video format and compression. The National Television System Committee has been around since it was first used to send video in 1941. Wow! Although tried and true, it’s just a little outdated.

IP cameras have higher resolution imaging capabilities. They are a camera, a DVR, and a peripheral interface device packed inside a shiny little shell. They incorporate the aforementioned video processing “guts,” along with the capability of locally storing video (that’s right, no more DVRs), communicating their health, and interfacing with intercom and security systems directly. Their video processing is much more powerful than standard video cameras, allowing for video analytics processing on board (facial recognition, motion detection, etc.). They have regular embedded-software device updates from the factory, or from a video management server software designer, their interface allow a exponentially larger amount of data to be pushed back to a recording device, and they are able to operate on a single, easily available and relatively cheap network cable.

Why do I need all that?

Let’s say you go out and buy a reasonably priced video surveillance system for $379.99. That gets you eight cameras and a name brand DVR. A few months go by and you notice you are missing some inventory. No one seems to know what happened, so you go over to your DVR and try to pull up the video. Long story short, there is no video because your hard disk failed three weeks ago. Why didn’t I know about this? There was no beep, the stupid thing didn’t even tell me there was a problem … now what do I do?  Realistically there is nothing you can do at that point.

The analog dialogue

This would not be an issue with an IP system. In fact, it is possible to find yourself with more information than you want. IP cameras are power over Ethernet, meaning the cameras are centrally powered through your network equipment. Most people protect their network devices from surge and power failures with an uninterruptable power supply and generators, so there is no fear of issues related to lightning and power outages. Not only are your IP cameras capable of recording locally and providing a reasonable amount of internal storage, but when coupled with a network video recorder or video management server, your set of features is easily doubled. They provide communication in the event of video loss, expandable and redundant storage solutions, and advanced video analytics shortening the time spent searching.

What if the camera dies? Your VMS server will contain the last few moments of recorded video, and it will recognize the fault and inform you via email. A good VMS system will also monitor hard disk health and inform you ahead of time of a pending hard disk fault or system failure. Cameras can also be configured to provide notification of a central fault should that occur. The point is, you lose little to no video with a smarter system.

So why not go with IP?

All those smarts come at a cost, however. Although the infrastructure is significantly cheaper than the analog equivalent, the hardware can be quite a bit more expensive. Moreover, installation, configuration and maintenance of a full IP video management system will require an IT professional.

That’s not to say it’s out of the question, however; it just gives people pause when opening their checkbook. The real question is not why, but why not? If I am going to put forth the time and money to buy a mediocre system that I’m constantly worrying about, why not spend a little more and put a system in place that I do not have to lose sleep over? I want a system that will tell me when it’s not feeling well and will get me a license plate from 300 feet away, instead of showing me a blurry bumper.

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Roy Smith is a support center technician at i3 Business Solutions, an IT firm in Grand Rapids. In 1990, he and his grandmother found his very first computer. After high school, Smith joined the Navy as part of the Submarine Electronics and Computer field. While underway, he maintained and operated the weapons systems and stood on sonar watches. Smith finished his degree in computer networking and immediately jumped into the service industry. He has been working on computers professionally for more than 15 years.