AV over IP — Are You Late to the Party?

James Meredith breaks down this future-ready technology.

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AV over IP — Are You Late to the Party?

For the last decade, most integrators in our industry have been sending HD signals over category cable in one form or another but there is no doubt that the AV signal distribution market is in the middle of a monumental, once-in-a-decade, shift in technology.

Many of us are old enough to remember the days before the analog sunset, back when plugging in a cable would (almost) always result in a picture at the other end, albeit ghosted or speckled with noise. Then the dawn of HDMI brought with it a raft of changes. Suddenly the source was aware of the display and wanted to do everything it could to prevent its precious content from being viewed by any undesirables—or anyone else for that matter. HDCP and EDID were fine when connected straight to the display, but as soon as there was another device in the way all hell broke loose.

Since these early days however, life has been relatively trouble-free. We think nothing of having five or more devices in the signal path, and displays have caught up with the assortment of resolutions and audio formats that various sources throw at them. As both resolutions and color-depth have increased, the raw bandwidth of AV content that is sent around the average building rivals that of a small data center and this resulted in all of us upping our game: better cables, better terminations, testing, testing, and testing again. But there is no doubt that HDBaseT has deserved its place as the industry standard of signal distribution for most of the naughties.

So why are we changing to IP if everything is so good? Well, HDBT is not perfect. There is no doubt that in a point-to-point world, it is still the best and simplest solution on the market, but the majority of customers’ requirements are anything but point-to-point. We’ve all had the customer who has given one list of requirements at the start of the project, only to change their mind after the first fix is completed, and then give us another. Questions need to be asked, such as: What displays and sources will be used? Where will they be located? How many of them will there be? HDBaseT has never offered a flexible solution to these questions without significant cost implications. Then there is the distance limitation; 35m or 70m or if you were brave, you could double down with a repeater—or more recently jump to HDBT 2.0 and achieve 150m—but only at HD and yet still this requires a dedicated cable to each end point.

Even when the make, model, number, location and distance of displays is set in stone, who is to say that it will not change in the years to come? Is the customer’s investment then wasted? Unfortunately, the answer is often yes. Expensive upgrades make for very awkward conversations. So, what is the solution to these exact problems? Step in AV over IP. It’s Powerful, Reliable and—most of all—Simple, if you know how to approach it.

Powerful because of its flexibility, as any location on the network can host a source or a display. Want to expand in the future? Create an entirely new building next door? Simply grow the network at a relatively low cost per port and you have almost limitless expansion possibilities. Using fiber to connect the network makes distance limitations a thing of the past. Every source and display can be configured individually for its optimum input or output—control signals in the IP domain can be generated at the end point—removing the need for huge control processors and additional cables and balluns.

Reliable because the technologies that are used in every AV over IP system have been in use for decades. They are ratified standards that have driven the internet for years; they are well documented and understood by the millions of highly educated, certified network administrators in every country on the planet.

And finally, Simple, but, and this is a major point, there is a But, it is not as simple as everything that has come before it. For each improvement issue that is fixed, AV over IP’s benefits come with a cost in the form of a steep new learning curve. If you have yet to venture into the world of IP signal distribution, don’t let this scare you! We, here at WyreStorm, can help diminish this learning curve and allow you to fully exploit the benefits of AV over IP.

With AV over IP, the cables do not simply plug in and work instantaneously. There is configuration, both on the end point device, either an encoder (at the source) or decoder (at the display), as well as the network’s design and configuration to consider. The flexibility of this technology can also dramatically increase configuration, testing, and fault-finding time. The experience of working through all of these issues firsthand with customers and refining our software has resulted in our NetworkHD Console’s batch functions and zero configuration networking. I’m sure if you have kept your ear to the ground you have heard your peers complain about AV over IP issues and I understand their complaints—IP is a giant leap from everything that has come before. Much like changing from a combustion engine to an electric car, proper preparation and planning is crucial to the successful journey of AV over IP.

It is important to say that the time scale of the install will increase with the size of the project. The time needed to install a 16×16 matrix is higher than a 4×4, yet when approaching a 25×100 AV over IP solution many integrators are surprised by the time it takes to properly fault-find a system. Most of this extra time is simply spent walking from one room to the next as the premises that house these projects are undoubtably bigger than a single room.

It is also fair to say a laptop is a must, which it wasn’t in the past, but careful selection of the right network components can make the configuration a step-by-step process that can be mastered in minutes. More importantly, the beauty of a properly implemented AV over IP solution enables automatic device discovery, as well as updates and configuration changes to be rolled out en-masse at the click of a button. For example, I recently updated and configured two-hundred-and-eighty display end points in a little over a minute, much to the awe of the University AV team that stood behind me. The caveat being all displays were the same make and model—but it was still a wow moment that team will not quickly forget.

Undoubtably the biggest concern for any integrator stepping into the world of AV over IP is the network itself, and again this is where the strength and flexibility of AV over IP can be mistakenly perceived as a problem. This is because there are two installation scenarios. One where you, the integrator, own the network, install and configure everything yourself; and the second—where you don’t! The first scenario is fast, and usually stress and problem free. Without the right preparation, the second can be the exact opposite. Organizations love the benefits of managing the IT infrastructure themselves—less call outs, onsite maintenance staff and, ultimately, everything is under their control; but if they are not properly consulted and informed then the installation can grind to a halt.

I am often asked if I prefer to install a dedicated AV network or to integrate into the wider network—and the answer is, undoubtably, both. Dedicated networks, for the reasons stated above, do have a tendency to be completed sooner but there is something truly special about an AV system that is seamlessly integrated into the customer’s own IT framework. Achieving this seamless integration requires planning and communication right from the start of the project. WyreStorm has specifically documented the key principles that administrators should understand before starting any AV over IP project. Many of which they will be aware but should still be informed of prior to any devices being connected to the network because they are still human, mostly!

These early discussions are critical to the success of the project. Both asking and informing the user to ensure all decisions are made together is key. These discussions include, but are not limited to, whether to use Static, DHCP or ZeroConf addressing, Unicast, Multicast, IGMP, MCU size or jumbo frames, VLANs, communication ports, security protocols, stream bandwidth, especially how to calculate it throughout the network; POE power draw, access to WiFi, control networks and more… Now if this seems like a lot to remember, and don’t worry it is, we have a solution! WyreStorm has compiled a document that can form the basis of these discussions, known as our Technical Reference Guideline. Nine-point-nine times out of ten when this guide is read through with the IT department, the network is ready to go before you are—hassle free and without you lifting a finger.

So, there you have it—the key to AV over IP success: the benefits of introducing the technology to your customer and winning the project, the ‘gotcha’s’ that you wouldn’t be the first (or the last!) to make, right through to how to approach that nightmare IT administrator. If you have a project that you think could benefit from the topics discussed above, WyreStorm is here to help. Find out how to reach out to us at WyreStorm.com, where we can offer System Design Assistance, pre-sales advice, through to expert remote support and system configuration.

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