Technology in the corporate or enterprise environment has long revolved around a company’s computer network. In fact, just about everything in offices now is IP-based and connects to, or through, the network: VOIP/telephony, cell phones, conferencing, control signals, access control, CCTV, etc. And that’s not to mention the impact of cloud computing on our daily routines. Everything lives through “the network.” Well…everything except for one thing.
The sole holdout to the IP conversion has been audio/video—or, more precisely, video. The reason is relatively obvious, of course: Video requires more bandwidth than standard corporate networks can handle smoothly. And the higher the video resolution, the more it can hamstring most corporate networks.
So, IT professionals, whose job it is to manage these networks, have shunned the idea of taxing their companies’ systems with unnecessary, bandwidth-sucking traffic. Instead, AV has been relegated to its own dedicated infrastructure of specialized cables and hardware.
However, to quote Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, “The times they are a-changin’.” (Who would have ever thought we’d be using the words “Nobel Prize” and “Bob Dylan” in the same sentence? I guess times do change!) And those changes portray a far friendlier landscape.
The AV industry has been moving toward IP-based distribution for some time; that must be increasingly concerning to network managers, given that every study that analyzes the use of video in business reports the same conclusion: increasing demand for more, and higher-resolution, video.
The advantages of using IP networks to distribute AV signals have long been compelling, especially from a cost standpoint.
- Because the AV signals travel over the same Cat5/Cat6 cable as other network traffic does, there is no need to run additional cables.
- IP networks allow for an almost limitless number of sources and destinations (displays) on the system, eliminating the need for matrix switchers. That scalability is a significant advantage both in convenience and in cost.
- The new network user interfaces are making system configuration easier and faster.
- There is also a significant savings to be found by eliminating the need for separate, dedicated video-processing hardware. That function is increasingly software driven, and included in the encoders and decoders used within the IP network infrastructure.
- Migrating to a time-tested, industry-standard platform that supports interoperability between manufacturers is the best way to futureproof your AV distribution network.
- As the cost-of-entry barrier drops, supporting video becomes more affordable, and the size of the market for potential users increases.
However, although these advantages have existed, in theory, for some time, the significant challenges that have prevented the adoption of AV over IP must still be addressed:
- Bandwidth and image quality
- Signal synchronization
- HDCP compliance
It’s important to recognize that so much of our work—indeed, so much of our lives—depends on being connected; and, without question, companies have become far more receptive to network-centric approaches. To meet the demand, networks have been improved, and they’re now faster and far more robust than they used to be.
But, although network bandwidth isn’t the concern it used to be for most of our network traffic, when we’re distributing dozens—maybe even hundreds—of streams of audio, video and control, it all adds up quickly. The cumulative bandwidth of a proprietary JPEG2000, or other minimally compressed solutions, will likely overwhelm the backplane and the uplinks between switches.
To alleviate network congestion, the industry has developed visually lossless compression standards—namely, H.264 and H.265—that are being employed by network operators and incorporated by component manufacturers to ensure the integrity and sustainability of the infrastructure, and the interoperability of any components added to the system. For example, H.264 streams 2K files at approximately 8MB and 4K at 16MB, with a latency as low as 58 milliseconds; meanwhile, H.265 cuts those bandwidth numbers in half, with latency measured as low as 100 milliseconds. And most major manufacturers now offer protocols to ensure signal synchronization.
In most environments, the ability to pass protected content from PC/Mac/Blu-ray or broadcast TV can be critical. HDCP support on an IP distribution system is not yet universal, but devices that will pass protected content to an unlimited number of end points are available from manufacturers in this segment.
The shift to IP-based distribution has been a long time coming, and resistance should be expected. After all, this infrastructure issue has potentially significant ramifications should someone make the wrong choice. However, the wrong choice would be not to embrace this change and, instead, to invest in an infrastructure that won’t live up to future demands.
The technology is here. Major commercial AV manufacturers with a history of stability and a reputation for quality products have committed to this future and to improving the technology further.
There is no longer a reason to pause. AV over IP is a technology whose time has come.