Integrating any A/V component or system onto the IT network is bound to trigger issues, both for end users as well as the integrators helping them. Technical issues may arise that leave integrators scrambling for solutions, or cause end users to shift their expectations. Timeframes and budgets may be impacted. With VoIP implementations listed as the top IT initiative, driving enterprises to improve performance by 64 percent of respondents, more companies are bumping into the challenges that integration presents. And because there are stumbling blocks on both sides, we’ve put together a handful of pain points that crop up regularly to show how they can affect everyone involved.
When Plano, Tex.-based Denbury Resources selected their A/V integration solution, they discovered the need for more infrastructure segmentation than they had originally planned for. “We found out that we had to reserve nearly five VLANS to keep traffic separated off our general data and VoIP network,” says Steve Shanks, CTS-I, DMC-E, the independent oil and gas company’s audiovisual specialist. “This was simple to do, but unexpected.”
Sometimes unexpected issues come as a complete surprise, and sometimes they’re something you were just hoping to avoid. Misunderstandings in how seat licensing is managed and purchased (most often encountered in VoIP and telepresence environments) often produce budget headaches. Occasionally, an enterprise will discover that a critical or expensive component can’t be added to a service contract because it’s near — or past — its planned obsolescence date. Existing firewalls may block the traversal of A/V traffic, something that is often discovered after the equipment has been paid for and installed. The system’s launch may be delayed while a new appliance is ordered, or IT might need to bring in a specialty contractor to reconfigure the existing box.
In-house expertise, an outside consultant, your vendor and even the manufacturer should weigh in on the type of changes your network architecture will need to integrate A/V, but even then it’s possible to miss something or find that the standard solution doesn’t quite meet your needs. Shanks recommends that any administrator planning to launch an integration project or add integrated systems to the network “have an experienced audiovisual [expert], preferably holding a certificate from InfoComm [and] also with the vendors you intend to have product for.” He says this allows for much quicker identification of issues and faster resolution to any problems that might crop up.
One pain point identified by Wayne Hoffman, VTC division manager at ARRAY Information Technology in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the push from vendors and IT departments to maintain latest firmware version, something he says can occasionally introduce bugs rather than fix them. “We never worked on the current firmware version,” Hoffman says of the years he spent as an administrator. “It seemed like even though you would think the new firmware version would fix a lot of bugs, you would find it would also introduce a lot.” And while new releases can contain security fixes, feature updates, and other useful stuff, Hoffman says it’s important to find out what the new version will bring. “Always read the release notes before you upgrade,” he urges. “If there are features or particular things you know you’re having problems with, then if you read the release notes and you don’t see a fix for the problem you’re having, then maybe you don’t need to upgrade.”
Underestimating the amount of bandwidth that is both a) available, and b) needed is a common challenge, both for end users as well as integrators. Hoffman strongly encourages organizations to involve their IT experts early in process, instead of bringing them in on an ad-hoc basis. “Then they’re able to put this on their radar as a project,” he says. In order to ensure that enough dedicated bandwidth is available for A/V functions, IT may choose to create one or more VLANs to carry platform-specific traffic, something that may take additional time and resources.
As companies mature and their A/V usage expands and evolves, what was previously plenty of bandwidth might now be insufficient to maintain good network performance. “They’ll have to keep reassessing their bandwidth as they start adding on more and more systems,” Hoffman warns. Increasing needs often stem from simple growth — more employees means more bandwidth is used — but can also be triggered by changing technology. A system may receive a firmware upgrade that increases the features available (thus upping the bandwidth requirements), or as a platform evolves it could undergo a shift in how it uses the bandwidth available to it.
Keeping up with, and in some cases predicting, what employees need and expect can definitely be a source of frustration for administrators. Doug Carnell, executive vice president of operations at AVI-SPL in Tampa, Florida, says that in today’s environment, younger workers might actually choose to avoid potential employers who haven’t embraced the latest technologies, citing the current bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend.
“Today’s [workers] are saying, ‘I have my devices from home. I’m going to bring them in here and I want to use them,’” Carnell says, adding that administrators must focus not only on meeting employees’ needs today, but they must also worry about “meeting the needs of the employee of the future.”
Because the impact to the enterprise can be significant (end user downtime while systems are upgraded, the cost to purchase new equipment, etc.), IT and A/V managers are often caught between trying to leverage technologies that will carry them into the future while getting budget approval in an environment where doing less with more is expected. Carnell thinks digital media will continue to ramp up at a rapid pace, a scenario that may leave administrators feeling like they’re constantly trying to catch up.
Integrators and end users continue to be stymied by the occasional instance of conventional IT thinking, which Michael Brandofino, AVI-SPL’s executive vice president of Video and Unified Communications, says might go something like this: “Time out. I don’t know that device, I don’t understand it.”
If the name on the logo doesn’t ring a bell with the IT team, A/V administrators are finding they may have a tough time getting their systems integrated into the network. IT may not trust the security available within the device and block its network access to prevent potential incursions. Or they might be concerned that the new device will cause problems with existing equipment because of a lack of interoperability or because the new device is more resource-intensive than the network can support.
Education is usually the solution, which could mean simply providing IT with a product brochure so they have a better idea of how the equipment will reside on the network. It might also be wise to invite IT to a meeting with the vendors — the manufacturer, the integrator, or perhaps both — and ensure that everyone’s questions are fully answered.
Administrators who have received pushback from IT or senior management on adding service contracts to networked A/V components or systems have run into another common pain point. The problem, says Carnell, is that not everyone sees the A/V side of the house as mission critical. “We’ve dealt with some of the highest end IT companies that still take the view that they don’t need service contracts,” Carnell says.
Because of the sometimes low cost (relative to other network infrastructure equipment) of A/V components, organizations might intend to simply replace the components if they fail. This perspective often stems from early generations of network-capable A/V equipment, where maintenance consisted largely of replacing burned out projector bulbs.
No matter the type of system, Carnell asks, “Once you start to use it, if it doesn’t work, what do you do?” End users and system administrators increasingly believe these systems really do require comprehensive services contracts or service level agreements (SLAs), and it’s a pain point that can sometimes come as a surprise. In a non-integrated environment, A/V systems were often managed by groups other than IT, and many were covered by some sort of service agreement. Now that these systems are residing on the IT network, any service contract might be subject to different criteria or require approval from a still-new-to-A/V IT department. If IT hasn’t historically managed this type of equipment, A/V managers may need to sit down with them to determine what type of system data or service benchmarking would help them understand why the equipment should be covered under a service contract.