AV has relied quite heavily on IT for some time now for facilitating control of devices, interconnectivity of systems, communication across applications, and management of assets, rooms, facilities, and AV operations. To date, provisioning of AV devices on the network has become a fairly manageable effort that could be done with minimal disruption to IT operations. Isolated networks, VLANs, and subnets have provided AV systems with a safe playground and given IT the peace of mind that their network would not be compromised by AV activity. Having AV directly on the corporate or client network has been a “nice to have” rather than a “must have.” But this is quickly changing.
A New Wave
With AV over IP, the AV matrix switcher is replaced with an IT network switch, promoting the use of typical IT hardware and networking as the backbone of the AV infrastructure—a solution that is more familiar to IT professionals. But despite its many advantages, AV over IP has its drawbacks, too.
As with many other technology advancements, the growth and adoption of AV-over-IP technology forces a shift in mindset for industry professionals. Presuming that the quality of the video is a non-factor, there are some important considerations that should be discussed in the approach to an AV-over-IP solution over their traditional counterparts.
A New Language
Although moving from traditional AV infrastructure to IP network infrastructure seems easy, it really forces the world of AV to know and understand the world of IT, because AV and IT must collaborate for successful IP network convergence.
In traditional AV systems, troubleshooting techniques are commonly known and have not changed significantly since the move from analog to digital. With the move to video over IP, the need to understand networks, setup of network devices, troubleshooting network communication, and the ability to speak the language of IT with professionals from client organizations are key. Aside from getting AV devices provisioned on the network, the ability to connect laptops over the network to run setup and diagnostic software is important. This means that either the client must allow software to be installed on one of their machines, or the laptop of an outside technician or programmer must be permitted on the network.
As with most projects—but even more critically with AV-over-IP solutions—the client, technology manager, integrator, and programmer must all be on the same page regarding roles and responsibilities of getting devices configured and tested on the network. AV over IP not only requires IP addresses and subnets to be defined, it also requires ports, communication protocols, and security mechanisms to be effectively managed. These settings and permissions should be discussed and agreed upon upfront to ensure that there will be no obstacles or red flags preventing successful deployment. Depending on the client, it may take days or weeks to have a new network appliance approved to join their organization’s network due to security requirements and bandwidth concerns. Factoring this consideration into the technology, device, and manufacturer selection requires advanced planning to ensure that the best solution is chosen, and subsequent scheduling can be met.
Once the devices are approved for the network and requirements of IP addresses and port settings, and communication protocols are resolved, the equipment needs to be set up and tested to ensure video and audio signals are being transmitted from one point to another. Since it is rare for this to work on the first try without a hitch, someone who has networking knowledge and access to the client’s IT staff must be involved in the discussion to troubleshoot and help resolve the issues that arise.
In the past, with traditional AV systems, the functionality of the system could be fairly easily deduced by the capabilities of the AV matrix switcher architecture. Using encoders and decoders with AV-over-IP systems provides virtually endless capabilities supporting the ability to route video from any point to any other point within the network. This not only offers the flexibility to support the potential matrix switching of sources to destinations within a physical space, but also allows for routing of any sources to decoders in any other space within the enterprise. As a result, it becomes critical to specify the signal switching requirements and restrictions available to a user from a control panel. Programmers need to be clear on what functionality should and should not be permitted, so that they can propose, plan, and implement a proper scope of work.
Learning on the Fly
Unfortunately, the great value that is often provided in staging traditional AV systems is diminished with AV-over-IP solutions when the actual network that will be used for transport is not available for testing. Staging can still be extremely valuable in vetting control functionality, equipment integrity, and wiring; however, there is no way to truly simulate the behaviors and challenges of the actual system without access to the client network. Additionally, device setup, including Ethernet switch settings, will likely need adjustment when transitioning from test network to the client’s environment.
Lastly, as part of the AV design and commissioning process, considerations for a network map, device configuration guide, and maintenance plan should be documented and provided to the client’s IT team. Although the system may be set up to operate flawlessly during the deployment and acceptance testing, the need to have knowledge of these network devices, settings, firmware versions, and maintenance best practices will be critical for continued operation and support.
AV-over-IP solutions present not only great value and opportunity for clients, but also for the future of AV professionals who embrace this technology. Those who are network savvy, are willing to tackle the challenges of learning a new technology, and can think outside the box regarding their roles and responsibilities will find and upside in their future. For these individuals, AV over IP will present new opportunities, and potentially new identities, in the form of jobs like AV network engineer, AV network designer, or AV network commissioning and configuration specialist.
Steve Greenblatt, CTS, is president and founder of Control Concepts, a provider of specialized software and services for the audiovisual industry.