How to choose between an NVR and VMS running on an off-the-shelf server
Software drives video solutions in the IP environment, but often that software is a pre-installed component of a purpose-built network video recorder (NVR). In other cases, software solutions are sold separately and then installed (usually by the integrator) on a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) server. But how can an integrator or end user decide which approach is best for them? We asked this week’s Expert Panel Roundtable: What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a pre-configured video appliance (such as a purpose-built NVR with preinstalled software) versus software running on an off-the-shelf server?
A purpose-built appliance by definition has been developed and tested as a complete solution. The system may have embedded POE, digital I/O, serial ports and other features that are not typically found on a general purpose appliance. Another advantage of a complete solution is, if there are any issues there is a single point of contact. Running off-the-shelf hardware and loading software requires more IT expertise from the security integrator, the end user and a different level of support from the software provider. Using off-the-shelf hardware allows end users to use computer equipment that they have already purchased and have hardware and software maintenance contracts on. It also allows them to use an operating system that has been approved in their IT environment. These two advantages facilitate much faster approval and deployment in larger corporations.
The advantages of using a pre-configured appliance are ease of selection during the design process, cost, and knowledge of performance of the solution. The disadvantage is that generally these appliances are not built with enterprise components; they have multiple points of failure, and generally have a parts replacement warranty.
The advantage of a purpose-built NVR is that everything is pre-configured and matched for optimal functionality. The video management system is the only application running on the box, which limits disruptions caused by other applications that might be needed, particularly with a server-based VMS deployment. When comparing the two, it is likely that the feature set of the purpose-built NVR is less robust than a server-based VMS, especially in terms of computing capabilities. The lesser functionality should, however, not be seen as a disadvantage as long as it meets the demands of the user’s organisation.
Pre-configured NVRs are comprehensive recording devices designed to meet the unique needs of video surveillance and security applications. Software features enable stakeholders to streamline video viewing and automate monitoring. Open platform architecture allows integration with other business systems for additional operational intelligence and situational awareness. NVRs are more cost-effective than purchasing software and standalone servers, and designed for long life and low cost of ownership. NVRs support a pre-determined number of cameras so it can be limiting for larger organisations that may need scalability or ease of system expansion over time. By choosing video management software and a standard server solution, there is more flexibility over time to expand the system as needed.
Pre-configured video appliances are certainly becoming popular for the low- to mid-end of the market. The main advantage of using these appliances is the ease of installation, as they are generally pre-loaded with the required software and are pre-tested so that installers simply have to plug them in on site with no software loading and minimal configuration. As bundled solutions, pre-configured appliances also tend to be cost-effective; most software providers offer relative lower prices for appliances bundled with a certain number of software licenses. The biggest disadvantage of using these appliances, however, is that in general, they’re not designed to be (re)configurable; i.e., they do not allow users to change processors, storage, software, etc. This could be a severe limitation, as a user's surveillance needs are likely to change, such as using different cameras, adding more cameras, etc. This severely limits the end user in regards to scalability.
One obvious benefit of an NVR appliance compared to software VMS system is ease of configuration and installation. Since there's little to no software to install, deploying an NVR is faster and easier than the complexities of a VMS. In regards to support, when a customer buys an NVR, the solution is often easier to support because it was meant for a specific purpose. On the flip side, since NVRs are typically only used for a specific use, extended support from the manufacturer might not exist in the event that something significant goes wrong. Scalability with NVRs is also an issue, as it can be limited. NVRs typically come as a complete system, so if an NVR supports up to 200 channels, and you need 203, you now need an entire additional unit for 3 channels. This is where a software plus commercial off-the-shelf product has the advantage.
Pre-configured appliances bring many advantages to both the integrator and end user, mainly in the form of simplicity, ease of ownership and maintenance. On a pre-configured appliance all OS software will typically be preloaded with any necessary plugins, drivers, etc. This also includes pre-provisioning of the VMS licenses so the customer has a turnkey experience. In comparison to a server you may need to load an OS, Windows updates, VMS software, patches, camera plugins, etc. which can become time-consuming and require more IT specific expertise. Many appliances will also include a built-in POE switch, allowing for easier installation and configuration. In some instances, the higher-end hardware features found in COTS servers might not be required for these applications, which gives the integrator and end user an affordable solution. I wouldn’t say there are disadvantages, it’s really about choosing the right product for the application, based on customer need and expectations.
Choosing between a pre-configured NVR and VMS software running on an off-the-shelf server is largely a matter of trade-offs. NVRs may be simpler to install, but less flexible as system needs evolve over time. VMS software offers more flexibility, but may require a higher level of IT expertise to install and maintain. An NVR may offer fewer features (in the interest of keeping costs low), but a VMS may be competing with other software applications on an off-the-shelf server. In the end, there is no clear answer to the question, but rather a thousand answers – one for each of the thousands of applications served by both approaches.
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