This article originally ran on Corporate Tech Decisions magazine.
Ethernet once was the dominion of the IT folks who made sure that you could find the files you needed on the server or could send these to the networked printer. As AV folks we lived in a “...and never the twain shall meet,” coexistence and there was balance in the world. Even though Ethernet, the process of networking computers together, is nearly 30 years old, audio/video and control systems rarely ventured into connecting via the RJ45 (the one that looks like an old phone connector on steroids). This is no longer true as every manufacturer is expected to have a network port and an app for Ethernet connectivity.
As could be expected, when the AV folks begin to start connecting systems to networks once solely populated by beige sedate machines, conflicts were sure to arise. AV and IT have officially entered into a serious and lifelong wedded bliss. In any marriage until the partners reach the point where paragraphs can be communicated with a word and a look some presumptions or even misunderstandings can persist.
To help alleviate the inevitable conflicts lets chat about some common terms and misconceptions and how to work through them; think of it as preemptive counseling.
What’s the IP addressing, Kenneth?
Most of us know that this refers to the address of a device or computer but hey, it’s early and we have to ease ourselves in. As a refresher - If your computer is on the network it has an Internet Protocol Address (IP Address), this is how the servers and IT managers know where and when you are on the system.
A bigger question is whether or not the device can be addressed via Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), static or both. These are two addressing schemes IT departments use to manage devices and access. Static means just that, an address that is set and never changes, you want this for access to a common shared item like a printer. DHCP describes addresses that can change each time you connect to the network. DHCP chooses an address from a pool and allocates them as needed. These can have a determined lease time, one day, one week, 3 hours. The benefit of DHCP is that once a group of addresses are set aside in a table they can be assigned or put back in the pool automatically, taking the burden of having to manually supply an address to each user or device. Which one to use is dependent on how the network is setup and designed to be utilized.
Porcine by Any Other Name, Still Not a Hog?
One of the main concerns of an IT department upon being presented with an Ethernet ‘appliance’ like a control system processor or devices from media servers to thermostat or lighting control switch is that it will hog the bandwidth. Their fear is founded in the IT departments’ prime directive. All business data must be the top priority to the detriment of all others. Email and other business applications must remain operative at threat of the COO’s wrath, not a fate we wish on any of our co-workers.
The truth is that this all depends on what the device to be hung on the network actually does. This can be a bit like re-hashing what the definition of “is,” is but there is something to this and knowing the difference can help alleviate the debate. A control system can potentially create a bit of traffic as they poll all devices connected to them on the network or relay commands from a tablet or smartphone app and update feedback from them. In the larger business network this is really minimal and should not be of great concern in the majority of common install applications. There are exceptions for which prove the rule of course and each must be considered individually but on the whole a few conference rooms controlling lighting and equipment will barely register above the general network traffic.
The Formidable Porcine
On the other hand there are some devices that will rightly put the IT department into a screechy bug-eyed rain dance. While sending control commands to a video or audio player is minimal in terms of traffic generated on the network, sending the actual video or audio can be real trouble. The Stones may have sung, “...it’s only Rock n’ Roll…,” but the truth is that it takes gobs (that’s a technical term folks, I swear) of data to send a simple song from one computer to another.
Many manufactures of professional media streaming devices will recommend that the CAT5/6 output(s) be connected on their own dedicated network to allow for bandwidth room and to avoid mucking up the mission critical network usage. (There is also the danger of putting an unwanted voltage on the line with proprietary pinouts). While connectivity for Ethernet control and maintenance can live off of the general network the pipes for the actual media often live on its own parallel network.
There is another more pervasive gremlin to the well balanced company network, the era of consumer networked streaming appliances has the potential to turn mild mannered IT folks into hypersensitive hypercondriacs and for good reason. The fast rise of small and portable boxes like Roku, Apple TV, TiVo stream and a host of others which can connect in momentsand begin streaming great boatloads content (data) can bring a system to its knees. Add to this folks who see nothing wrong with connecting digital signage boxes (many made by the folks listed above) and you can see why bringing your own device is a maddening proposition. Think of it this way, IT does not bemoan, chide, scold and often outright forbid employees connecting to the popular web based audio and video sites just because they are the “no fun police.” The potential for multiple tablets or mobile devices turning into mini streaming portals is just too much by half. Best advice? Just because it worked at home with no ill effect does not mean it is harmless on the work network.
Preventing the Pandemic
Nothing can put the knee knocking night sweats fear into network administrators more than a virus being set wild on their system. It is bad enough that some people will click on a link promising fabulous wealth for a $100 deposit from someone they never heard of. Now you want to put a device they have never seen before which does not include their standard suite of defense tools on their network? You can see why some flat out refuse to even consider the option.
On the whole, pro network capable AV devices are actually less prone to virus attacks and hacking as they use embedded operating systems and are generally do not have the type of vulnerabilities inherent in more prolific software architectures. The fact is that these control systems do not have enough of an install base to merit all but a passing glance from those looking to wreak havoc. Any control system or other device which uses an open source OS or consumer platform, like XMBC which is the basis of many home content boxes, or removable storage is prone to attack and can therefore act as a gateway to the larger system.
In the end the marrying of AV, IT and other non-standard network equipment is inevitable. Like any relationship or marriage you really never know someone until you move in with them, share common space and have to share the duties. This process of converging technologies and landscape will have its highs and lows but taking the time to sit down and break bread between the departments will go a long way to minimizing conflicts.
I encourage you to comment below to let me know what you think I missed or even outright got wrong. My experience may not be yours.