AV and IT at a Crossroads

It may be seem like a marriage of inconvenience, but it's for life. As it did to so many others, information technology?and in particular, Internet Protocol networking?has wedded itself to the audiov 2/09/2009 3:37 AM Eastern

AV and IT at a Crossroads

It may be seem like a marriage of inconvenience, but it's for life. As it did to so many others, information technology?and in particular, Internet Protocol networking?has wedded itself to the audiovisual industry. And many professional AV firms are finding it hard getting used to the new living arrangements.

It may be seem like a marriage of inconvenience, but it's for life. As it did to so many others, information technology–and in particular, Internet Protocol networking–has wedded itself to the audiovisual industry. And many professional AV firms are finding it hard getting used to the new living arrangements.

"The adoption of IT is the most dramatic change in this industry since audio-centric companies adopted video," says Dan Erickson, vice president and chief technology officer of General Communications in Salt Lake City and NSCA University's 2008 Educator of the Year. "Now we see AV firms that have been in business for years having to become network savvy. That has been a difficult transition for a lot of companies."

What's more, partly as a result of this convergence, AV pros now find themselves competing with companies they didn't share business with before. Pro AV wanted to know what it's like now at this industry crossroads. Here's what we're hearing, in two acts.

Act 1: The Thing With Two Heads

By Dan Tynan

Dan Erickson's NSCA class "Networking Issues that Impact AV Integrators and Designers" earned him the group's 2008 Educator of the Year honor. "You'd be amazed by the number of AV people who don't understand what an IP address is," he says.

Credit: Ramin Rahimian/WPN

AV and IT are complex disciplines that, until a few years ago, had very little to do with each other. That's changed in a big way, says Rod Andrewson, manager of engineering for CCS Presentation Systems in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"AV and IT aren't converging, they've converged," says Andrewson. "Even four or five years ago almost no AV hardware came with any kind of Ethernet or IP capability. Now it's difficult to find equipment that isn't IP capable."

But while the devices have converged, the people who need to make them work together have not. Looking for the perfect tech who's equally proficient in IT and AV? Good luck.

"As smart as our AV engineers are, they don't have expertise in IT," say Kenneth Gisstennar, president of Spinitar, a custom AV company based in La Mirada, Calif. "It's very difficult to find one person who knows both."

But if you must choose someone with a single expertise, start with the AV wonk and teach him IT.

"It's harder to teach an IT guy audiovisual skills," says Peter Grosskopf, manager of multimedia solutions for IPLogic, a voice and data solutions firm in Albany, N.Y. "If they understood it, they'd be doing it already. But the migration path for AV pros says, 'Learn IT or you're dead. You're on an island, and it's sinking fast.'"

Those in the industry say that's easier said than done. Many AV techs are starting from ground zero when they enter the world of information technology.

AV is from Mars, IT IS from Venus

"You'd be amazed by the number of AV people who don't understand what an IP address is," says General Communications' Dan Erickson, who teaches classes in networking issues for the National Systems Contractors Association University. "They know they have to have one to talk on a network, they may even recognize what one looks like, but they have no idea what it does."

Other alien concepts Erickson teaches in his classes include the differences between static IP addresses and reserved DHCP addresses, physical and logical networks, firewalls and VPNs, TCP and UDP ports, pinging and port sniffing–the list goes on. And as technology has grown more complex, Erickson's courses have grown longer: from two hours to four hours to an entire day. Now he says NSCA University is thinking about adding a second day to his networking class.

Paul Streffon, a staff instructor for InfoComm Academy, says most AV people don't possess the vocabulary to discuss technical issues with their colleagues in IT, let alone solve them. "A big part of what I teach is understanding the language," he says. "There's such a difference in language that the two groups are afraid to talk to each other for fear of sounding stupid."

But then again, IT folks who take courses to learn more about AV are equally bewildered by things like delivering audio and video across a data network, managing strange devices, and dealing with unfamiliar content.

"IT people who come to my classes say, 'These AV people want to put huge files on my network. What is that going to break?'?" says Streffon. "They worry about bandwidth. They're very nervous about projectors that come with hard drives and the kinds of things that [the projectors] could introduce onto the network."

But the differences are more than just technical; they're cultural.

IT is built on standards, notes Spinitar's Gisstennar. AV is more custom, based on application needs. The way they map things out is different, says Streffon. AV pros tend to think of networks as linear, moving from left to right; IT guys see networks as star diagrams with signals going in every direction.

"IT managers have to manage all this sensitive data," Streffon says. "They tend to see their job as closing off access to the data and not letting anyone in unless a higher authority says it's OK. AV people believe their job is to take someone else's message and make it available to everyone, even people who aren't necessarily interested in hearing it. Their mindsets are totally opposed. Both sides have to appreciate the other's mindset and figure out how they're going to make it work."

Train in Vain

The bottom line is, AV integrators need both AV and network expertise on the job. But that can translate into higher costs for firms that must maintain staff in both areas, or contract out for IT help.

"We assign a field engineer to every project to help our people with installations," says Andrewson. "Typically they have a huge background in traditional AV, but also training in configuring and setting up IT. The tough thing is how to get them effectively trained and allowed to apply what they've learned to real projects so that it sticks, but still be able to make money."

Training can be a significant investment. At AdTech Systems, a commercial and residential AV firm in Boston, pros attend annual IT-centric courses from manufacturers such as Crestron, as well as teaching academies like NSCA and Infocomm. AdTech systems designer Jim Ares estimates that sending a single person to one class can cost from $1,500 to $5,000 or more, including hotels and airfare.

Worse, once they're trained, techs sometimes leave for greener pastures. Ares says AdTech avoids this by being selective about who to send off for classes and penalizing employees for leaving early.

"You figure out pretty quickly who to train," says Ares. "There are company guys who want to be with you for the long haul, and they let you know that. Our people sign an agreement saying if they leave within a certain period of time after training, they have to pay back the cost. That's a pretty big disincentive."

Of course, many AV firms actually do have IT experts on staff–they're the folks who keep the firms' own computers up and running. AdTech relies heavily on its in-house IT staff to help out AV techs when they get stuck, either by phone or on-site. With particularly challenging projects the company brings in an outside IT contractor.

"The worst thing that can happen is to have your AV guys on hold with the manufacturer or with the manual open in front of them trying to solve basic networking problems," says Ares. "Your productivity just drops through the floor."

Bone Up on AV and IT
Both the National Systems Contractors Association and InfoComm offer coursework in AV-IT convergence issues. Here's a sampling of what's available.
Networking 101 Basics: TCP/IP Devices and RulesNSCA University$129 (members) $169 (nonmembers)1x per year2 hours
Computer Networking for AV ProfessionalsNSCA University$129 (members) $169 (nonmembers)1x per year2 hours
Ethernet and IP: The Basics of Today's Most Popular Networking TechnologyNSCA University$249 (members) $325 (nonmembers)1x per year4 hours
Networking Issues that Impact AV Interogators and DesignersNSCA University$369 (members) $480 (nonmembers)1x per year8 hours
AV Essentials for IT ProfessionalsInfoComm$995 (members) $1,495 (nonmembers)4x per year3 days
AV/IT Integration for Technical ProfessionalsInfoComm$995 (members) $1,495 (nonmembers)4x per year3 days

Similarly, Gisstennar says his company's internal IT department has become more customer-facing, taking a bigger role in its video streaming, digital signage, and network monitoring installations.

"At the end of the day you've got to have people who have fundamental responsibility to IT or who have fundamental responsibility to AV, and who will work together and learn from one another," Gisstennar says. "It's rare and perhaps unfair to think that you can have a bunch of individuals who know both disciplines at the level deemed necessary by either industry."

Reconcilable Differences?

Getting IT and AV pros to work together as a team presents its own problems. Turf wars, long held resentments, and an inability to speak each other's languages can lead to a rocky marriage.

"I don't think all IT people appreciate that AV is a discipline; that there is an actual science to what we do," says Streffon. "They think because they have a TV at home they understand AV. But they don't understand that we really do know what a good picture looks like and what good audio sounds like."

Andrewson agrees. "Right now it seems there's a lot of animosity between the two," he says. "You've got to check that at the door. When I lost my animosity five or six years ago I found it was a lot easier for me to work with people on both sides."

If you're an AV specialist in a large organization, you're probably reporting to the IT manager. That may rankle, but it's not necessarily a bad thing, says Streffon.

For one thing, it ensures that things the AV folks care about–like where to drop cables and place speakers and projectors–may get the same priority as networking cables and RJ45 jacks when planning new construction.

The key is communication. "You need to take your IT guy to lunch and talk about this stuff," says Streffon. "Sure, you should get online, take classes, learn more about basic networking. But that relationship is the important thing. You should both feel comfortable picking up the phone and asking each other questions. As long as there's a rivalry, neither side will benefit to the fullest."

And for old established AV firms that have so far resisted the digital revolution and are hoping for a divorce? It's time to tech up.

"We don't see a need for anybody who's strictly AV anymore," says IP Logic's Grosskopf. "There's not a client we meet who doesn't have a request that can't fit on the network. Everything is IP addressable now. Either you'll be an IT guy or you won't be anything at all. Companies that are strictly AV aren't going to be around much longer."

Dan Tynan is an award-winning freelance technology journalist and author based in Wilmington, N.C.

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AV and IT at a Crossroads

It may be seem like a marriage of inconvenience, but it's for life. As it did to so many others, information technology?and in particular, Internet Protocol networking?has wedded itself to the audiovisual industry. And many professional AV firms are finding it hard getting used to the new living arrangements.

Act 2: Up for Grabs

By Tim Kridel

The long-term impact on pro av might not have been immediately obvious, but two days last November could mark pivotal changes in the pro AV competitive environment.

On Nov. 10, Circuit City announced it would file Chapter 11 after closing 155 stores the week before (the company has since begun liquidating and closing for good). That's noteworthy because Circuit City was among the retailers that had been targeting the pro AV market. A survey by Menlo Park, Calif.-based Pacific Media Associates found that more than 40 percent of companies planning to add flat panels in 2008 expected to get them from Circuit City and other big-box retailers.

Then at a Nov. 11 press conference, baseball's New York Yankees gave an update on its new, $1.3 billion stadium. It includes $15 million worth of AV and networking gear, including 1,100 displays, from IP networking giant Cisco Systems. The San Jose-based company says its equipment is already in 60 percent of North American stadiums and that it's targeting new venues needing advanced video systems as a way to grab even more market share.

"Wherever stadiums are being built, Cisco is talking to those franchises," said Ron Ricci, Cisco's vice president for corporate positioning.

For now, that 60 percent figure comprises mainly its networking equipment, but that won't be the case for long. Cisco continues to build out its Digital Media System (DMS), a portfolio of enterprise and commercial products that includes enterprise TV and digital signage. Last month, in what it called a move to offer end-to-end systems, Cisco even rolled out its own flat-panel displays, manufactured for the company by Samsung (see "5-Minute Interview," page 23).

"We've gone from zero to a thousand customers in under two years," says David Hsieh, vice president of marketing for Cisco's Emerging Technology Group.

Cisco and Circuit City are just two examples of outsiders that have been targeting the pro AV market. In Cisco's case especially, momentum derives from the convergence of AV and IT. "It's only a matter of time before the IT industry and the AV industry are both the same," says Glenn Polly, owner of VideoSonic, a New York-based integrator.

That convergence is changing the competitive environment. Traditional IT vendors and IT integrators are looking for work in the AV market. Sometimes they go it alone; sometimes they look for partners that have the AV-specific skills, such as understanding room acoustics, they lack.

"In many cases, we're seeing teaming relationships open up because [IT] companies don't want to go into the space because it's outside their core capabilities," says Tom Corzine, vice president of government sales at Tampa-based AVI-SPL. "They also don't want to lose out on a revenue stream and allow their competitors to get access to it. As much as [companies such as Cisco and HP] may go directly and win a project, we're working with them."

And that could be sweetly ironic. Although IT firms increasingly compete with AV integrators, they're also acting as extended sales teams because they have to bring AV experts into jobs that AV pros might not otherwise get.

Telcos Teeming and Teaming

Like IT vendors and integrators, communication service providers–particularly telcos–are expanding into the pro AV market. Companies such as AT&T, BT, and Sprint–as well as some telecom and IT vendors–have begun offering videoconferencing and telepresence products and services directly to enterprises. One reason is because they want to pick up additional revenue, but they also want to drive more demand for bandwidth. But as you'd expect they sometimes lack the in-house expertise necessary to pull off those jobs, therefore it's not uncommon for them to make the sale and then subcontract tasks such as design and installation to an AV integrator. Building relationships with service providers, therefore, is key.

Some integrators say they get called in when a telepresence system, for example, requires customization or when the system has to be made compatible with existing videoconferencing gear.

"That's where we really see the play from a pure AV integrator: We can build telepresence rooms outside of just what the manufacturers offer as their telepresence-in-a-box solution," says AVI-SPL's Corzine.

"They're really taking the low-hanging fruit," says Scott Christianson, owner of Kaleidoscope Videoconferencing, a Columbia, Mo.-based integrator. "What I've seen is those IT guys that are selling videoconferencing solutions are really selling package-oriented solutions. But they're not very good at dealing with interoperability.

The Vendor Factor

There's also a perception, because IT gear is highly visible to end-users through brand-name companies like Cisco and HP, that the channel for certain systems is changing.

One reason why some integrators find it challenging to compete with big-box retailers that try to offer integration services in offices and boardrooms, for instance, is because they bury the price of their services in the hardware markup. And even that strategy falls apart when clients bring their own gear.

"So many more customers are attempting to take the equipment out of the equation and not buying them through the reseller or integrator," says Steve Stubelt, director of system solutions sales and marketing at Sony Electronics. "That's causing [AV integrators] to have to compete not on the sale of hardware as much as on their services and their specialties."

Some integrators say that vendors could do a better job of channel management by setting a price floor that in turn gives the integrator a minimum margin. But the days of burying services in hardware markups may be waning, a trend that some vendors, at least, apparently welcome.

"For us, that's a very positive movement because for the longest time, we've had to balance this tightrope where integrators are trying to make the margins on the equipment to cover, in some cases, the true cost of the services they provide," Stubelt says. "That doesn't give the customer the true cost of their services or what the value of their services is."

Tom Corzine, vice president of government sales at AV integrator AVI-SPL, says his company often partners with IT firms because IT companies usually know what they don't know: acoustics, audio/video signaling, and other things AV pros are expert in.

Tom Corzine, vice president of government sales at AV integrator AVI-SPL, says his company often partners with IT firms because IT companies usually know what they don't know: acoustics, audio/video signaling, and other things AV pros are expert in.

Credit: Chuck France/WPN

Translation: Some AV integrators need to do a better job of articulating the value of their services and expertise, not just in order to justify their prices, but also to compete with IT firms, musician-supply stores, security-system installers, and whomever else they're up against in a particular market.

Vendors are helping integrators by making them part of package deals that they negotiate directly with large customer. For example, Sony is increasingly selling both hardware and integration directly to entities such as stadium owners. "We're bundling the channel and their services in with our products and providing them to customers," Stubelt says. "We're almost selling [AV integrators'] services."

They're conveying that message in a variety of ways, such as with exhibits at events that attract end-users in a particular vertical and with stories in a vertical's trade magazines that profile an installation. Sometimes vendors don't wait for their dealers and integrators to bring in a high-profile installation that they can crow about, but instead land those deals on their own.

"They're going directly to those performing arts centers, stadiums, or corporate headquarters and saying, 'We're going to bring in our preapproved AV systems designers, but we want to work directly with you to make sure that you get the very best,'?" says John Stiernberg at Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Stiernberg Consulting.

The tricky part is determining which AV integrator gets bundled with the vendor's products. Sony gets around that by bringing in multiple integrators on the bid and then letting the client pick one.

"They're getting the integrator of their choice, with Sony as the wrapper around it, and it's being provided to them as a package," Stubelt says.

Those package deals also could help the AV industry with another competitive change in the industry: The increasing demand for national-level support. For example, Sony–or Cisco, for that matter–could serve as the main point of contact for a client, which then wouldn't have to line up integrators in each part of the country.

Ultimately, AV integrators also could wind up merging or at least partnering to meet the demand for nationwide service that the convergence of AV and IT brings with it. The kind of service large IT firms already are adept at.

Says AVI-SPL's Corzine, "That's one of the top customer demands."

Tim Kridel is a Columbia, Mo.-based freelance writer, analyst, and frequent contributor to Pro AV who covers telecom and technology.

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