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The New IT Application: Video Surveillance

IP-enabled digital cameras combined with access controls, data analytics and storage systems are pushing video surveillance into the realm of IT.

For many years, video surveillance in enterprises mostly fell outside the purview of IT organizations. Cameras were analog and used for very narrow purposes, such as monitoring movements outside a warehouse. Now, the pace of "IT-ification" of video surveillance has intensified, and, in quite a few organizations, video surveillance is a new type of mission-critical system.

The reason with which everyone is familiar is that security surveillance seems to be ever more ubiquitous, but there are other uses. For example, a store that is sued for a fall may turn to video to determine if the alleged incident did, in fact, occur. Retailers also monitor the movement and buying behavior of customers.

That's fine, but why is IT getting involved? The IP-enabling of digital cameras is a major contributing factor, as now video can be sent over a network to a data center and managed as an information asset by IT. But other related issues also come into play. Integration with other IT systems, such as access controls that restrict video access to authorized users, is critical. The ability to scale storage requirements also is essential. We are talking about big data in the volume sense primarily (multi-petabytes anyone?), but a better term would be big storage. And advanced analytics, such as the evolving license plate recognition, are being developed to better derive value from the data.

We're not there yet, but progress is being made. Analog still represents half the market for video surveillance, but tape-based video suffers from a number of problems, including limited scalability, expensive cabling and inferior image quality. So the trend is to the digitalization of video surveillance.

Leading The Charge

Axis Communications, a Sweden-based company founded in 1984, is a major player in the digital camera market, competing with familiar companies, such as Bosch, Panasonic and Samsung. Axis differentiates itself through its focus exclusively on digital cameras that are IP-enabled and function as self-contained Web servers. Axis invented the world’s first IP video camera in 1996 and claims to have a third of the IP-enabled digital camera market.

Having processor power aboard a camera at the edge of the network is important. Video can be pre-analyzed at the camera level and, if desired, only metadata or selected data can be sent--reducing burden on the network. For example, users may choose to save only license plate information and not a full car clip. Another option is to retain data with on-board storage for, say, up to five days in a typical configuration. Of course, video information can also be sent to a data center or to a cloud service for either immediate attention or for longer-term retention. In fact, the AXIS Video Hosting System is a software platform that allows Axis’ partners to become video surveillance hosting and service providers through a cloud of their own.

[Video traffic is rapidly changing as trends like streaming video surge. Read what's in store for IT teams in "Video Evolution: Brace Yourself For Impact."]

Image quality is important, as grainy video may not be suitable for forensic purposes, and Axis offers cameras with various levels of quality. The tradeoff is that, as the quality moves upward to high definition (HD), more storage is required for each second of video retained. However, advanced compression, such as the H.264 standard, has made HDTV in video surveillance a reality.

Video surveillance is applicable in a variety of markets. Manufacturing companies, for instance, can use it for a number of purposes, such as monitoring critical infrastructure, remote monitoring of processes and avoiding liability by ensuring that workers are following the proper procedures.

Axis works with technology partners such as Motorola in networking, and EMC and NetApp in storage.

Video Surveillance at Los Angeles World Airports

Dom Nessi, deputy director and CIO of Los Angeles World Airports, took the time to tell me about how video surveillance fits into the LAWA's IT information infrastructure. LAWA owns and operates three airports in Southern California, including Los Angeles International Airport.

The airports deploy cameras at traditional locations, such as checkpoints and roadways. Most are digital, but some analog cameras still exist. Those will be replaced during the course of the next year.

Axis is one of the brands of camera that LAWA uses. IP-enabled cameras are critical for LAWA, as select video may be sent to desktops, video screens or large LCDs now and, in the future, to a variety of other devices, including mobile devices.

Video is captured at LAWA's airports from over 2,000 cameras. That information is stored on 33 petabytes (yes, 33 petabytes) of hard disk storage supplied by HP. Captured video is stored for 13 months unless there is a reason to flag something, and then that selected information can be preserved in perpetuity, if required.

Now, when most examinations of video data would be real-time, near real-time, hours or days, why retain the video data for so long? Well, the “long-tailed” distribution model says that most data will never be accessed, but that some will need to be recalled. You cannot predict in advance what data might be important, such as videos that cover an accident for which a lawsuit has been filed.

LAWA airport operations, traffic control and traffic monitoring are not the only stakeholders in this video operation. TSA, as well as custom and border control agencies, are other major players. Although all the data is stored in a common pool, access controls restrict images to only those authorized to view them.

LAWA uses IP video surveillance software from Israel-based NICE to manage its video information. LAWA also uses some analytics, but is still exploring ways to take greater advantage of those technologies. That is not only a technical issue (how to avoid false positives), but also a business process issue. For example, if a motion detection system does not detect that a vehicle has moved in an hour, determining when and to whom to send an alert should require management attention.

Management by exception is important, such as in motion detection. For example, motion detection can determine if anyone is walking in a direction opposite to where they should be going. It can also be used in queue management, such as measuring the density of people waiting to board a delayed flight.

Video information is integrated with other situation awareness management software (SAMS). For example, when an alert occurs, different sets of software determine what happened. Say an access door alarm goes off--that information will be sent to SAMS and an operations center. The information from the appropriate cameras will be retrieved to understand that incident--here is what happened and how. If appropriate, information can be sent to the police or similar agencies.

All in all, Nessi feels the whole video surveillance environment is a major productivity and security boost for LAWA.

Mesabi Musings

While everyone is aware in general terms of the rise in video surveillance, awareness does not necessarily translate into understanding that it's now becoming an IT application. There are some enterprises that will only dabble in video surveillance, but, for others, it's a mission-critical application from the start. Note that “mission-critical” means that after a system is in place, you don’t know how you could have ever lived without it, and turning it off would simply be unthinkable. I think that LAWA’s 2,000- camera surveillance system fits into that category.

Since high-quality video requires considerable volumes of storage (in contrast to business transactions, e-mails, word processing documents, and so on), we believe the big storage market will continue to attract more attention from IT vendors like Axis. And many IT organizations will face having to manage a new type of mission-critical system.

Axis Communications is not a client of David Hill and the Mesabi Group.

David Hill is principal of Mesabi Group LLC, which focuses on helping organizations make complex IT infrastructure decisions simpler and easier to understand. He is the author of the book "Data Protection: Governance, Risk Management, and Compliance." View Full Bio

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