Utility PCs: No brainer system maintenance.

In the AV industry, the end users are typically represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the designers, who specify the systems; and the integrators who install them. My company acts as a third party to commission these systems. These are our stories.

Checklist Item Under Test: 6.60: Thoroughly test any web-based system control or monitoring features, and other IP functionality of system (time servers, system-generated email, etc.).

Reasoning: AV systems have increasing amounts of software and information required to interface with them. In order to make a simple change to a system, a technician not only has to worry about the physical equipment, but also has to remember to bring the proper version of software and configuration files. A tremendous amount of time is wasted trying to track down login information and either rolling back firmware on GUI software, or updating firmware on devices. Including Utility PCs in designs and installations can go a long way in alleviating these issues.

The Story: I’m a man of simple means. When I go into a public restroom, the only thing I expect is for there to be toilet paper in the stall and soap at the sink. I don’t even really need paper towels or a working hand dryer, although they are nice. So you could imagine my surprise at seeing some of the technology-infused toilet seats that are on the market. They have everything you could possibly need for an enjoyable restroom experience. No toilet paper? No problem, here’s a temperature-controlled bidet with a memory system that recalls water pressure and temperature settings. Cold mornings? No problem, the seat is heated. Old outlets in the house? No problem, it has built-in ground fault detection. Need to toot? No problem, there are four preset masking noises. Naturally, this got me thinking about Utility PCs for complex AV systems.

How often have technicians called into the office from a service call asking for someone who remembers the login information for a device? I remember one time in 2010 when we had to install a GUI from 2002 to interface with the client’s control system. Luckily, it was still available on the manufacturer’s website. However, six months later, it was not. So, there was only one laptop with the GUI that could easily update the control system. Never mind trying to remember login information; who remembers where the laptop with the 2002 GUI is!? One possible solution to these issues: the Utility PC. It’s the technology-infused toilet seat of complex AV systems.

The purpose of a Utility PC, or AV Engineering Computer, is to leave all the soft tools required to interface with the entire system on one machine that stays with the system. It has all the software loaded and ready to interface with the devices that are installed. It may not update to the “latest and greatest” firmware as time passes, but it can communicate with the system. Networks and serial cables (remember those things?) can be left with the PC so a technician has everything required to communicate with all devices in the system without having to bring his own laptop.

Further, it is a place to store all the system documentation. Operators and technicians can have access to all the system configuration documents. And, operators and technicians can update all the system configuration documents when there’s a change. If you want to get fancy, you can have editable system drawings available so changes can be made before the technician leaves the site, assuring that the drawings are always up to date.

Now that many AV devices have their own internal web interfaces for controls, setting up a GUI to talk to them is as simple as storing bookmarks in your browser of choice. No more looking up IP addresses or hostnames. More often than not, if the client allows it, the login information is recalled as well, so accessing all the devices is easy-peasy.

We used to use three-inch-thick binders to house all the system drawings, equipment inventory, equipment manuals, CDs with the program and site files, etc. They took hours to assemble, and when all was said and done, probably cost someone hundreds of dollars when labor is accounted for. USB sticks were the next step, but many of our clients are no longer allowing portable hard drives on their computers. The next logical step is the Utility PC. I can find a decent computer online for about $200. It’d be great if clients pay for it, but even if they don’t, how much time and energy would be saved by simply including a dedicated Utility PC in your larger systems?

Depending on the client, if they would allow an AV PC on their guest network and allow some remote login software, now you can remote into the system and have access to all devices from anywhere in the world. Service calls may no longer require an onsite presence, and issues may be able to be addressed immediately. Money is saved by the integrator, and service is improved for the client. This is not a bad thing at all.

It does take discipline to set these things up, however. Software has to be loaded and activated. You have to convince the client that having a third-party Utility PC hanging out in their system is acceptable. You have to spend time setting up bookmarks and making sure all the system files are the most up to date every time there’s a change. You also have to transfer any changes made onsite on the Utility PC back to your servers back at the office, so the entire company has the most up-to-date information. But think of the money, headache and resources that can be saved. And, just to stay competitive with those impressive toilet seats, I’ve even seen some integrators add a sound board app with some masking noises just in case there’s a rumbly in your tumbly.

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