Expert Roundtable: AV Meets IT

Prominent systems integrators discuss the challenges of bridging gaps between the two sectors.
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Expert Roundtable: AV Meets IT

Mar 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Jay Ankeney

Prominent systems integrators discuss the challenges of bridging gaps between the two sectors.

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The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York relies heavily on the integration of AV and IT for effective displays.

Like the raging streams of the mighty Nile River, the two currents of audiovisual (AV) communication and information technology (IT) are combining to form the greatest outpouring of communication ever to wash over the corporate world. But like those two Nile tributaries, AV and IT come from different sources, traverse different landscapes, and have origins derived from different functions, so getting them to cooperate can also be one of the greatest challenges for today's systems integrators.

AV is concerned with providing sight and sound input to the end viewer, so its priority is the audience's appreciation of the message it is communicating. IT was born from data transmission, which means its focus is the delivery of bits and bytes to other technologies. But as AV has evolved into file-based digital formats, many corporations are taking advantage of the ability to transport AV content over increasingly ubiquitous IT technologies, especially the Internet, using Internet Protocol (IP) connectivity via TCP/IP.

Part of the disparity is that conventional AV depends on an uninterrupted stream of communication while IT's origins are based on packet transmission. From these beginnings, each has developed its own glossary of terms — which, like verbal disputes between Yanks and Brits — can often become the common language that separates the two.

For example, an AV specialist would insist the word “mac” obviously refers to an Apple computer, while an IT pro recognizes it as “moves/adds/and changes.” Similarly, AV folks might expect a “multicast-enabled” network to be able to simultaneously distribute different video formats of the same program, while their IT compatriots will know the term refers to sending a single video stream through a network of data switchers using various bandwidth rates.

To help navigate the waters of AV over IT, five prominent systems integrators agreed to participate in a roundtable discussion about the challenges they face when trying to bridge the technology and human resources of both worlds.

Participants included Kevin McGinniss, systems design engineer at Advanced AV Systems Integration, West Chester, Pa.; Phillip Smith, director of videoconferencing at Southern Business Communications, Norcross, Ga.; Chris Bianchet, vice president of systems integration, Audio Visual Innovations, Tampa, Fla.; Mark Bellehumeur, president of Tek 7, New York; and Glenn Polly, president of VideoSonic, New York.

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Expert Roundtable: AV Meets IT

Mar 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Jay Ankeney

Prominent systems integrators discuss the challenges of bridging gaps between the two sectors.

Image placeholder title

The Broadwing Network Operations Center in Austin, Texas, features a conference room designed for video teleconferencing. All lighting is color- and temperature-balanced to optimize video.

How have the challenges of integrating AV over IT changed in the past five years? What are your clients looking for now that has affected the services you provide?

McGinniss: Today, clients want the ability to manage their systems from anywhere in the building without being in the room, while also enabling the system to notify the AV department of errors, equipment usage outside of normal business hours, or high projector-lamp life. This has caused the development of more complex code to track the status of the system and the implementation of more-complex user interfaces to show a global view of the systems. Many manufacturers have responded to this issue by developing device drivers and standard GUIs to help the integrator (for example: Extron Global Viewer, AMX Asset Manager, and Crestron Room View).

Smith: In the late 90s/early 2000s, when discussing running video over IP (referring to H.323) with an IT manager, the most common response you would hear was “not on my network.” Video over IP was a new technology and implementing quality of service was a challenge. More often that not, the investment required to increase the bandwidth on the wide-area network to support video was cost-prohibitive. At the end of the day, it was easier and less expensive to install ISDN. However, switching technologies quickly improved, competition has driven down the cost of bandwidth, and implementing QoS-enabled networks is a breeze. As a result, IP is now the preferred method of transport over ISDN. Once they understand the impact of video on their network, most IT managers we work with now readily embrace video over IP.

Bianchet: Customers are looking for complete, easy-to-use systems that they can monitor and gather data from in order to justify the investment in the systems. Many customers also are looking to outsource these monitoring needs because they may not have the budget to keep a full-time AV staff. By outsourcing the services component, AV companies need a strategy to provide monitoring and service on an as-needed basis for multiple customers. This is quite different from the days when you had one service guy kept on staff and sent out only when customers called in. Today, you now have to be proactive in your offering.

Bellehumeur: If you look back five years, there were still a significant minority of commercial and institutional enterprises that had truly independent AV departments. The new client challenge is to teach today's IT folks the fundamentals of AV physics in a good design. Now that we have high-resolution audio and video going across LANs and WANs, it is often the fundamental system design aspects of room acoustics, lighting, ergonomics, and end-user experience (i.e., intuitive human interface design) that are compromised and only get noticed after they are budgeted out of the system. Today we need to either master the fundamentals of AV and IT within our firm, merge with an IT firm, or create a portfolio of complementary service providers for our clients.

Polly: Some of the challenges of integrating AV over IT have actually decreased over the past five years. Five years ago, much of the available equipment did not contain built-in Ethernet ports. Some manufacturers supplied equipment with Ethernet ports or had external accessory modules that could be purchased separately, but the Ethernet capabilities were virtually unsupported by either a lack of, or very klugey software. In the 21st century, not only can you monitor a component over Ethernet, but many devices are fully controllable over Ethernet, which provides an equal or sometimes better method of controlling a device than serial communication. In addition, local monitoring and control of devices over the client's LAN allows an administrative person to view the status of a system, be alerted when a device is in need of service (lamp or filter change on a projector), and be able to provide help to an executive who may have some frustration operating the system. All this can easily be done remotely. This allows us to better service our clients as we show up to clean a filter or replace a lamp, without the client having to send a request because the system itself calls for help.

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Expert Roundtable: AV Meets IT

Mar 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Jay Ankeney

Prominent systems integrators discuss the challenges of bridging gaps between the two sectors.

Because the skill sets and background experiences of AV experts and IT specialists differ, how do you get them to work efficiently together? Or is it important to keep the AV group separate from the IT department?

McGinniss: In order to work with the IT department you must first “talk their talk” and understand that the IT department is responsible for data security and the maintenance of a stable network. The best way to get any network information from the IT department is to engage them in the early stages, instead of the last week on the project when everything needs to work. I typically give the IT department a month to issue IP address and activate ports. Keeping AV and IT separate has some advantages for organizations with large infrastructures, but with more and more equipment being network-enabled, it is starting to make sense for the smaller-to-medium companies to integrate AV with IT. In addition, most corporate meetings using AV also require both a laptop and network access, which is exactly what IT is prepared for.

Smith: The key to running a successful project in which the AV and IT specialists work efficiently together is to involve all of the key stakeholders early in the process, preferably even during the sales process. The IT manager knows his network and will be able to provide valuable input that will help the AV integrator provide a more effective solution. When defining the project plan it is critical that all tasks, both AV and IT, are properly identified and their dependencies upon each other are understood by everyone. Simply put, it's a question of project management.

Bianchet: I believe it is inevitable that AV and IT will need to work together, but the challenge is that they are very different disciplines. If you hire someone to work in your IT department, there are many places they can get training and certifications, but if you want to take that same IT employee and have him schooled in AV, you have a much bigger challenge in finding education for them. You are also talking about several different disciplines like video, audio, control, and videoconferencing, which all have their own challenges. I believe that to be successful with this strategy, companies will need to have IT people who specialize in one of these AV areas to add value to the IT staff. Of course, this may be challenging for smaller companies. That's why having a good value-added AV company is so important.

Bellehumeur: As a technology service provider in AV, we have an obligation to impart the fundamentals of good AV design to our IT partners and clients. By the same token, we must learn the fundamentals of IT and give IT equal importance. I only know of a few instances where institutions have merged AV with IT and suffered diminishing returns. In those cases, the result is ignorance instead of good management, leading to poor interdepartmental support — and in the end, the client suffers.

Polly: AV departments are becoming a thing of the past. Rarely does a corporate client — or even a museum client or similar venue — have specific internal AV departments. Instead, what they do have are IT help desks. The IT departments have assumed the responsibility of overseeing both the procurement and maintenance of AV systems. As a rule, we typically try to work with the skill set of a client's IT department to provide us with static IP addresses or configure their firewall to enable video teleconferencing or other AV devices that exist on their network. Generally, the client is very helpful and enthusiastic to give us the support we require. After all, AV equipment is much more interesting to connect to than a printer or a scanner.

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Expert Roundtable: AV Meets IT

Mar 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Jay Ankeney

Prominent systems integrators discuss the challenges of bridging gaps between the two sectors.

In an era when security is so paramount, how do you deal with firewall transversal when communicating from one corporation to another? Are you often faced with limited access to a client's IP network?

McGinniss: A lot of companies will VTC [Video Teleconference] over IP internally, then use ISDN for outside their network because of their security concerns, firewall transversal issues, and the fact that the public Internet has inconsistent QoS, so one call may come through great and the next will be all jittery, depending on the time of day. Access to any corporate client's network is usually prohibited unless an AV or VTC subnet/VLAN has been created. Universities, on the other hand, are very accommodating and willing to open ports or create subnets.

Smith: Fortunately, the manufacturers we represent, such as Polycom and Tandberg, have developed excellent firewall traversal solutions, so securely traversing a firewall is fairly straightforward. However, and with good reason, we often still have some convincing to do when it comes the IT department. It is important that we develop an understanding of a client's visual communication requirements, including the need to communicate with other organizations on disparate networks. If two separate organizations have implemented firewall traversal then it's just a matter of neighboring their respective networks by registering their firewall traversal devices to each other. For organizations that have not implemented firewall traversal, when they need to communicate outside their network the most common method is to assign a NAT [Network Address Translation] address to the videoconferencing system. Or it can be placed outside the firewall on a public IP address.

Bianchet: As they should be, companies are very protective of who has access to their network. Leading manufacturers of videoconferencing products have made devices that allow companies to traverse firewalls, but it is often a more complicated situation than technologies can solve. Many corporations have policies about who and what can touch their network, which can be more of a political discussion within their company. Some companies have even gone to the extent of setting up a secondary network to run their videoconferencing so they don't have work around getting into their data network at all.

Bellehumeur: If you have clients in the government, medical, and financial sectors, you are going to have a very tight lockdown policy, which is often rooted in law. We have some clients who just reach the breaking point after painful installations, which results in mediocre client satisfaction. They finally discover that others in their sector have maintained their legal obligations and adopted firewall traversal along with remote-management services and encrypted audio and video technologies. The irony is that some “locked down” facilities can easily be breached over older ISDN lines, simply because no one is focusing on properly configuring and maintaining that vector anymore. With IP to ISDN, gateways structured within the AV and IT domain, success and greater economy can be realized in measurable ROI.

Polly: If the client will not give us access, we try to convince them that remote control and monitoring is essential. Sometimes we have had them subscribe to DSL or Cable ISP to provide us with our own dedicated Internet access to their systems. And yes, we are often faced with limited or no access to the client's network.

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Expert Roundtable: AV Meets IT

Mar 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Jay Ankeney

Prominent systems integrators discuss the challenges of bridging gaps between the two sectors.

With video-compression capabilities increasing at the same time that greater IP bandwidth is becoming available, what is the best strategy for corporate IT departments to take advantage of this evolution?

McGinniss: If a client is going to take advantage of the new HD video teleconferencing (VTC), their network must have the appropriate bandwidth. For HD, you need to have approximately 75 percent of the headroom available. For example, a 4MB call needs 12MB of bandwidth, and the network may need a separate VLAN for all VTC traffic. Too many clients try to put a new HD codec on their existing VTC networks, with disastrous results. Education and planning is the key to a proper installation and implementation.

The bigger problem that has come up more and more is how does one qualify a VTC network in the first place? A network analyzer looks at packet loss between the network switches but does not take into account the latency between the end points. In the VTC world, if the packet arrives late it is considered dropped, and there is no regeneration of packets in VTC.

Smith: The best strategy is for the IT department to develop an understanding of their internal customer's needs when it comes to visual communications and methods through which videoconferencing and streaming can be applied within their organization to improve communications. It is important to know who will be using the equipment, the frequency of usage and the locations (both on-net and off-net locations) that users need to access. A crucial step is to compare the different types of network access that will provide the required quality and connectivity, and with that data in hand, develop a total cost-of-ownership model to see if the investment truly makes sense.

Bianchet: First a company has to make the decision to change their culture and aggressively enter the world of video meetings utilizing videoconferencing devices. Many companies have purchased VC products in the past and they just sit around because they have not been integrated properly, or [staff] have not been properly trained to use the equipment. Once that decision is made, an IT department has to determine if their network can take the onslaught of bandwidth needed to handle video over the network. Security issues also become a problem. The best strategy for an IT department is to find a good, qualified AV partner that can help them with making these important decisions and then involve the people that can help make a change in their culture to use the equipment once they have it.

Bellehumeur: That will change from client to client. We are doing a financial institution project with many endpoints, but not all their endpoints are large or have great bandwidth. Others have substantial bandwidth, want HD with key endpoints, and serve as a meeting focal point. The days of one endpoint pulling everyone down to a crawl are basically gone. From the very beginning you should ensure that your designs and integration include SIP [Standard Interchange Protocol] or will be SIP-capable via firmware upgrades. This technology has come up fast and will help various disparate technologies take greater advantage of bandwidth, compression, and new service options. Then sit back and let your clients have fun figuring out what they are going to do with all their options.

Polly: It's always a difficult sell. No mater how compressed a media file is [typically its size is megabytes as opposed to kilobytes], IT managers are reluctant to have the additional traffic from media files occupy bandwidth on their network. So, as a rule, we don't even go there. We generally recommend that the media traffic take place over its own subnet that has been dedicated to the media and is kept separate from the data network.

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Expert Roundtable: AV Meets IT

Mar 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Jay Ankeney

Prominent systems integrators discuss the challenges of bridging gaps between the two sectors.

What are the one or two new technologies that have most influenced the merging with AV with IT, and how they have affected systems integration?

McGinniss: The merger between AV and IT has greatly improved now that most of the manufacturers have adapted well to the 802.3 Ethernet standards. The bigger problem is that most manufacturers are using Wi-Fi for their wireless applications, despite the fact that AV and IT still need some level of separation (subnet) because of the traffic and number of packets sent. Because of this, most WAPs [Wireless Access Points] conflict with the client's other Wi-Fi deployments. In addition, many large cooperates do not want any Wi-Fi in their build, and consider [it] a security risk even if the Wi-Fi traffic is on a separate AV subnet.

Smith: The two technologies that have had the most influence in merging AV with IT are videoconferencing and video streaming. Today, organizations need to communicate visually and, in addition to videoconferencing, our customers are also turning to video streaming (live and on-demand) to communicate across their organization and beyond. We are seeing an increasing number of videoconferencing and streaming inquiries for permanent facilities that lead to significant AV-integration opportunity [as opposed to a roll-about VC system]. So from a sales perspective, it's been great for us. When you add on microphones, echo-cancellers, additional switcher inputs, and the necessary controls, it can lead to a nice sale for us, and a high-powered tool for our clients.

Bianchet: If I were going to choose two technologies that have influenced the merging of AV and IT they would be control systems and IP videoconferencing. Control systems have really changed the way AV companies integrate systems. Since they can now work over the network, modern control systems require AV companies to coordinate with IT departments to allow these devices to sit on their networks. In addition, with the growth of IP videoconferencing and the increase of available bandwidth, videoconferencing is now being pushed over the network and into areas where AV companies have less experience. As with control systems, videoconferencing requires close coordination with the IT group prior to the sale to make sure we can run these devices on the network as well.

Bellehumeur: The top two new technologies in our group would have to be the rapid adoption of IP over ISDN, and the emergence of very stable and useful endpoint-management tools. The latter not only applies to videoconferencing, but also to standardized remote-control system management of all AV systems, and help-desk services across local or global client endpoints. While it's a constant challenge to keep up with new developments in AV and IT, the reward comes in long-term client relationships. You can keep your AV credentials while expanding your systems-integration services with grateful IT departments.

Polly: Definitely AV over UTP [Unshielded Twisted-pair] wires has saved dollars and time as we deal with a single cable type, end termination, and pin-out for every AV signal that needs to run from point A to point B. This eliminates the need to specify different cable types for different signals, along with the connectors and tooling for the variety of cables that we dealt with in the past. Technologies like CobraNet have also proven to be both a time- and money-saving protocol as multiple channels of audio can now be routed bidirectionally over a single cable. Ethernet control has certainly overcome the distance limitations typical of RS-232, and Ethernet switches and routers with multiple ports are far less expensive to employ for communicating with multiple devices than expanding a PC or AV controller by adding additional serial port modules or cards. Certainly, Wi-Fi has added a level of convenience. The fact that we can fine-tune and balance a room's audio system by sitting in any seat with a wireless laptop allows us to tweak the system with better accuracy, since we can do it from any listening position in the room.

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