As a company formed in the very early years of IP video and geared from the beginning to work with and deliver solutions around video over IP networks, we have seen many video management systems (VMS) come onto the market and many disappear, and our exposure to a large number of them has been significant.
We are well-placed to form an opinion on the state of the VMS marketplace and as a Milestone Platinum Partner, I’d like to explain why we have chosen to focus mainly on Milestone XProtect as the go-to VMS.
A fragmented market
The VMS market is highly fragmented, with VMS offerings coming from software-only suppliers and from camera hardware manufacturers, consisting of many flavours from fully distributed VMS systems built for running on enterprise-level hardware, to free and open source software running on any PC or server, or even a Raspberry Pi (though don’t expect to record many cameras using this hardware)! No supplier dominates the market and most exist in the margins. Most VMS are either weak in terms of their UI/UX (user interface / user experience – often making use of the analogue DVR paradigm for their interface design) are poorly documented, have patchy performance, don’t test compatibility properly, have a steep learning curve or worse, attempt to abstract important configuration options away from the administrator. They suffer from being bolt on, free-with-camera sales drivers and often from a lack of development focus. Only manufacturers with the ‘do one thing and do it well’ ethos can, in my opinion, make a truly great VMS.
Nowadays, surveillance VMS must be able to process potentially huge amounts of incoming and outgoing data. The performance requirements for recording today’s high resolution cameras at high frame rates are immense. As customer expectations increase so do the hardware resources and cost needed to deliver a security solution which meets those expectations. Milestone XProtect creates high demand on performance for the hardware it needs to run, or at least run in the manner of best practice, and therefore may seem somewhat expensive to end users. The similarity of core recording performance between Milestone’s enterprise-level solutions (XProtect Expert and Corporate) and their more entry-level and mid-range offerings (XProtect Essential, Express and Professional) is such that often Milestone is seen as an expensive solution at the low end due to the cost of the hardware needed to run it properly.
As is the case with most good things, you get what you pay for. At the basic level Milestone XProtect nevertheless will and can run on basic hardware with limited performance in terms of CPU, RAM, storage space and data throughput, although the number of cameras the system can record optimally will be reduced some degree against a system which is specified and built especially for Milestone and for the end user’s detailed requirements.
VMS development is complicated and expensive, not least because expert programmers are hard to come by, and command high salaries. This feeds into the pricing for VMS products and the support provided over time. Unlike consumer-level software, VMS software usually requires some kind of ongoing payment (though often not compulsory) in order for the software to be kept up-to-date and have maintained support on the product either directly to the end user or through a reseller, such as us. For this exact reason, cheap or free VMS products should be carefully approached regarding their all-round performance, their reliability, stability and – a key factor often overlooked – what support for the software can be provided from the reseller and the VMS manufacturer over time. Look beyond the data sheet – a VMS system should be bought with a lifespan of at least 5 years and the costs of maintaining a fully working and stable video surveillance system should be factored in.
Why is hardware performance such an issue?
Let’s look at what elements make a good software-based surveillance system. Aside from the software, there are two major requirements of a VMS of which hardware plays a part.
The CPU – the faster the CPU the more ‘frames’ in the video stream can be processed. This processing could be retrieving and saving the video frames themselves, analysing each frame for pixel change (VMD), detecting and triggering events and in some cases, when viewing from the same hardware, decompressing the live stream for viewing and playback.
The speed and type of disks is important. The faster the disks that receive the recordings, the more frames can be pushed through. This is especially important when there are many cameras or high resolution cameras in the system. Consideration also should be made for how long the video data should be stored for (on average around 2TB is a good starting point for even a 4 camera system recording for 30 days) and how the disks should be arranged (SAS vs SCSI disks, RAID vs no RAID, desktop vs surveillance vs enterprise drive types).
RAM is of lesser concern, but does play a part depending on how much of a ‘buffer’ needs to be saved. i.e. a 3 second pre-buffer on a 25fps stream means 75 frames are held in RAM memory per camera, so the more RAM available the larger the buffer can be.
Performance bottlenecks in VMS systems lead to at best, dropped frames and therefore fragmented recordings, and at the worst, major system instability and loss of recordings. It is therefore worth spending some time determining the need and investing in the right hardware for the task.
What about an NVR?
Many people run a 4 camera system on a bog-standard desktop PC, accepting some compromises in doing so, which for some may not be an issue. A really successful surveillance recording solution needs to be designed well, thought out and planned, particularly when the camera count goes up. The one-size-fits-all NVR philosophy is not always what the market wants or needs and often an NVR-based solution is laden with compromise and quickly escalating costs for expansion and growth.
Not that we shy away from NVRs. Its horses for courses – an NVR is perfectly suitable for some scenarios. Many small businesses, for example, may only be interested in the very basic recording of ingress and egress points to their property and have few additional requirements beyond retrospective playback. Single-vendor NVRs can offer this solution at a startlingly low price whilst meeting the recording and resolution/quality expectations that we in the IP video industry have created. However, throw into the mix needs like dual monitor display, audio talkback, perimeter detection, or any non-standard requirement and immediately NVRs become impossible to work with for a variety of reasons.
Cost vs capability
For us the question is cost vs capability. Milestone XProtect is an all-rounder. The initial investment up front is perhaps higher than it would be for an NVR or some other VMS, but the long-term benefits for the customer are sufficient that the ROI on the solution is higher. Plus, with the improvements Milestone have made over the last few years to their ‘Professional’ and ‘business-ready’ range of products (XProtect Essential, Express and Professional), VMS use for small to medium-sized systems (say 1-20 cameras) is easily within the budget and capabilities of even the smallest business. XProtect, with its clear separation between recording and viewing and its focus on usability and user friendliness in its Smart Client viewer and mobile app, has a much shorter learning curve than the vast majority of other VMS products or NVRs on the market.
For us, there is only one VMS that ticks almost all the boxes, and that’s Milestone XProtect.
Those of you who know XProtect well and have installed it will be aware that it does not come without its challenges. Having installed and supported many XProtect systems myself I can attest to the fact that, as with all complex systems, it can be complicated to troubleshoot. But, I can count on one hand the number of times a simple installation of Milestone has not gone perfectly smoothly and for that reason alone I recommend Milestone XProtect at the lower end of the market; the people who will benefit most from its advantages.
All this comes without considering some of the other key benefits of XProtect, not least its open platform capabilities and the future-proofing and investment protection this brings to customers at all levels and budgets. With so many vendors in the camera space and the continued improvements in complementary integrations, XProtect serves the whole of the market well. Milestone’s open platform ethos and their recently strengthened commitment to more frequent device packs for device support means that, at no level are any customers tied to a particular vendor’s camera and the innovation of the industry as a whole is available to be used. There are, of course, other open platform VMS out there, but Milestone’s device support and the way it integrates cameras reliably and homogeneously both for camera-native support and for ONVIF support, for us makes it the best VMS out there.
XProtect’s capabilities to go beyond video surveillance into access control, licence plate recognition, retail transactions and third-party add-ons which further future-proof the product and with Physical Security Information Management (PSIM) and the Internet of Security Things (IoST), Milestone is best-placed as a company to move into these spaces and we can, through their track-record, be confident that the products they develop and integrate into XProtect will be good ones. They are rarely the first to market, but that’s no bad thing.
Supporting the product
Milestone’s greatest challenge is perhaps not creating what we consider the best VMS on the market, they’ve nailed that, but in supporting it. While our end users rely on us to provide support to them, we in turn rely on our manufacturer vendors to provide support to us. This symbiotic relationship is critical to the sales channel and for end users to be confident in their choices. We strive to provide the best support in the market and we look at Milestone to provide this as well.
My personal opinion is that anything below excellent support from a manufacturer is unacceptable. Milestone are better than most, but they acknowledge improvements can be made. Milestone can learn from companies like Rackspace whose ethos of ‘Fanatical support’ is not only a positive message, but is really embraced and followed through by their staff and their individual competencies.
Ducks in a row
It’s fair to say that we like to work with vendors who have all their ducks in a row, have a mature offering and an ecosystem to support it. Milestone fits all those requirements in this respect, whereas most others fall short. Having done our due diligence on many other VMS offerings I don’t think it unfair to say that some manufacturers have a way to go, not only to deliver a product we would be happy to sell and support, but to build the maturity in their offerings that intrinsically create product trust and build on this as the relationship rolls on over time. Let’s not forget that XProtect is a complex piece of software. The sell-it-and-walk-away mentally cannot work. From the perspective of an end user of vital security software, Milestone delivers on all expectations and we provide the backup in the event of problems through our highly competent and experienced technical team.
It is in our company’s DNA that we work on behalf of the customer and in their best interests and we foster technology partnerships which strengthen this position. We look to provide professional solutions that can be easily maintained and which offer long-term investment protection to our customers. Therefore, we focus on Milestone and will generally not recommend other VMS products unless there is a highly specific need.
We have worked with Milestone now for 10 years and not only have we seen continual improvement in the product, and in their ability to support the product, but can attest that Milestone take feedback seriously and actively use it to develop their solutions and processes for the better.
For us, there is only one VMS that ticks almost all the boxes, and that’s Milestone XProtect.
Kevin Bowyer is Technical Director at NW Security Group and has built up hands-on expertise with IP video technology since 1998.