VMS – what is a VMS?
When considering a CCTV system there are many considerations that you will make. We have written blogs on these issues – camera type, locations, operational requirements, number, recording platform, retention period and the list goes on. One item that often gets overlooked is probably in the long term one of the most important – the user interface or VMS or Video Management System. For the life of the system this is how you will access your CCTV images – so picking the right one is very important.
What does a VMS do?
Think of the VMS as your computer or phones’ operating system – iOS, Android, Windows, etc – it is how you communicate with the cameras and recorders. Like these other operating system they come free with the hardware – much as you get iOS ‘free’ with every iPhone – which is great if you are familiar with iOS not so good if you don’t understand how to work it. A CCTV VMS is similar – you generally get a ‘free’ VMS from the manufacturer of the cameras and more likely the NVR. Some are completely free while others require licensing in some way. There are generally enterprise versions that are paid for and will offer benefits over the free version – but free is good, right? In a lot of cases, the included VMS will be more than adequate for your needs, but it is always worth exploring the features of the VMS you end up with as this will be what you will be using for a long time.
What to consider when choosing the right VMS for you
If you have a few cameras connected to a single recorder and one person at one position who uses the system every day any free VMS should work for you. Why do I say this? I’d like to think that some VMSs are better than other in terms of easy of use etc but all VMSs should do the basics required to use a CCTV system – like view camera feeds live, review recordings and download footage. How easy this is a different matter. If we go back to iOS as an example – Apple have spent many millions of dollars developing the interface to be as easy to use as possible – they can afford to do this, and most would say they have done a very good job. I use an Android phone but can pick up an iPhone and make a call with no instructions required – has anyone ever read an iPhone manual? If you use even a very poor VMS every day you can make it work – it might not be particularly intuitive or easy to use but you can get it to do what you want it to do in the most basic sense. This is fine when it is just you that is using the VMS but what if you have a week off and another member of staff is required to review some footage urgently. This could be a problem. The VMS is only on one PC and has one login that you may or may not have the password for. This may sound farfetched but, is extremely common – I know because we have replaced many such setups over the years.
So, it is worth considering how your CCTV system will be used and by who – daily users but also those on a less frequent basis.
System administration is another potential limitation of a lite version of a VMS. If you have a number of points where the CCTV needs to be accessed by a number of different users then managing the software and the user access starts to become more difficult. A basic VMS will generally be designed as a stand-alone system. You can make changes to one version on one PC but this does not update the other PCs. You might do something as simple as adding a new user or a new camera but unless you manually apply this change to each machine you will start to have a system that diverges. It’s not unknown for a site to be unaware that they have cameras that just haven’t been added into the VMS. This can be put down to bad management, but the VMS choice has a part to play in this as well.
An enterprise-level VMS will generally go a long way to address a lot of these issues. An advanced VMS will have a central, server-based, control application with users accessing the system via a client application. What does this mean for the users and administrators? There are many benefits to this setup. System management at every level is centralised. If a new camera is added users in the right groups will see the camera appear. If someone leaves the organisation their account can be deleted – which reduces a potential unauthorised access of the system. If you have a number of users of the system, then administration of the system and auditing becomes far easier with a client/server setup.
An advanced VMS will generally have more features that could make the system more useful and improve efficiency in the organisation. Simply linking cameras to the entry systems can reduce the requirement for staff to leave their desk when someone buzzes a door. I have been to many offices where this is the case and it is both annoying for the staff who are disturbed and wastes their time. Linking new or existing cameras and access control systems can aggregate all entry points to one or more locations where access can properly be managed.
As the example above, an advanced VMS can link different systems together and make these separate systems work as one. A VMS can often work with different manufactures’ hardware and bring together these different systems into one easy-to-manage point. VMS systems are available that are hardware independent that specialise in harmonising your new and existing systems. These systems are especially useful if you have several sites spread over a wide geographic area – informing a central location of activity – this can be security but just as easy give information on other events such as fire alarms or environmental indicators. This centralised approach can improve operational efficiencies and reduce operational costs.
These benefits generally will come at a cost but will in the long term reduce the time spent dealing with managing the system and could save money in the long term. The setup and ongoing cost of the system can be offset by these savings. We too often see systems that should be there to help an organisation actually hinder them. Time that should be spent on their core business is wasted dealing with poorly installed systems that are badly managed. When there is a real need for the information that should be available it is found that it is not there or takes a long time to find.
A VMS will also allow access to advanced functionality that will reduce the time spent investigating an incident. A simple example of this is the use of event-based searches. If you need to see who entered a site between 8 and 9 am on a certain day you might need to spend time reviewing the footage at double speed – so this is at least 30 minutes but if you add in the time required to pause the footage and note each person then this is more likely 45 minutes. This could be time very well spent but it is still nearly an hour of someone’s time and there is the potential that someone is missed – the phone rings and distracts the member of staff. A VMS will allow the time required to perform this search to be greatly reduced and eliminate the chance of someone being missed. So this 1 hour task can be performed in 15 minutes with a greater accuracy. Each VMS will have a different approach but essentially the better ones will have the ability to filter footage to give only relevant ‘events’. So, in our scenario here we could instruct the VMS to only show events where it sees someone pass through the scene. In seconds it will return a list of events that can be quickly reviewed, and the relevant information can be obtained.
A VMS can also be used to provide data that can help improve your organisations efficiency. Data from smart cameras can be compiled into reports. These cameras are able to count people in and out of areas, monitor areas for dwell times and monitor queue lengths. These are just a few examples of the metrics that can be monitored but let us look at these in more detail and how this could help your business.
Counting people in and out of an area can be very useful information to understand – mapping this over 24 hours, over weeks, months and years can allow for many decisions to be made in a better informed way. Additionally in the event of a fire the count can be used to confirm that the building is empty. Congregation in areas can be monitored and this information can be analysed to improve productivity. If staff are waiting in the kitchen to make a cup of tea or use the microwave this can be seen and changes made to reduce this downtime by installing another microwave for example. Monitoring queue lengths can be used in both real time and over longer periods to improve service. If you have a service where people are expected to wait for service then this type of analytics can be extremely useful. An alert can be set to inform a supervisor if the number of people waiting exceeds a set level – another member of staff can be sent to help and reduce the wait time for customers. This will be well received by both customer and staff and improve the company image.
Also, the data over time can be used to build a better understanding of the times when the service is busy. Obvious times for some organisations are during the middle of the day – people use their lunch break to access other services but there might be odd times every week when there are spikes in load. These will quickly be seen and additional resource can be deployed to pre-empt these times and again improve the image of your organisation – both externally or internally.
A VMS can also allow you to manage event-based automation of systems. Integration in Building Management Systems can allow additional actions to be taken in a more controlled way. Heating and lighting can be controlled better if systems understand better what is going on in a space. Joining these systems up can reduce fuel costs and reduce the company carbon footprint due to both heating and cooling.
For many organisations it is only required that the security system is a passive product that is required very occasionally and this is understandable but it is worth understanding that a new or upgrade of a CCTV system could, with some relatively small additional cost, provide many useful features.
If you are looking to install a new CCTV system or upgrade an existing system please contact ACCL and our experts will be able to find the right system for you and your company.