Networking Deep Dive: Are AV Companies Transitioning to IT Companies?

Exploring the ascendance of network-based AV and its implications for integrators’ profitability, while also considering the impetus to level-up on cybersecurity and IT conversance.

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Networking Deep Dive: Are AV Companies Transitioning to IT Companies?

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During a recent trip to NSCA’s 2022 Pivot to Profit event, a comment from Kyle Habben, president of ECC, stuck with me. Presenting at a breakout session, he remarked, “If we’re not already IT companies, we really need to start transforming ourselves into IT companies.” This is a clear reflection of what has become an inarguable reality: AV integration has largely become network based. That means it’s imperative for integrators to consider (a) embracing AV-over-IP and the possibilities it presents, (b) adhering to best practices for productive collaboration with IT teams, (c) adopting enterprise-grade cybersecurity methods, and (d) leaning into proactive service and support as a means of achieving recurring monthly revenue (RMR). 

In this, Commercial Integrator’s Networking Deep Dive, we’ll explore all those topics, drawing on the latest industry research, as well as commentary from top-tier integrators, to paint a picture of an industry in transition. What’s more, we’ll share data from a CI reader survey to get a view “from the trenches” of today’s integration businesses. We hope that, in its totality, CI’s Networking Deep Dive widens your view and makes clear that our industry is evolving just as quickly as the products that integrators install are. 

Making the Connection 

John Richards, CTS, director of engineering, systems integration, at AVI-SPL, clearly articulates the state of play, saying, “Today, most AV hardware utilizes a network connection as the interface to transport some or many of its required signals that play a role in the overall AV system.” He mentions that networks are everywhere now, and it would be hard to find installations without these connections today. Aaron Peterson, CTS-D, CTS-I, senior solutions engineer at Mechdyne, underscores this view, remarking, “I believe every installation is touching a network in some form.” Speaking candidly, he adds, “AV utilizes the IT framework for everything. If you’re thinking otherwise, you’re already so far in the dust that you’re probably not going to keep up at this point.” 

Sean Wargo PQSo, if systems integration, as AV professionals practice it today, entails every installed device being just a network endpoint, does that mean the erasure of any distinction between AV deployments and core IT infrastructure? Well, no, actually. That’s because various network topologies and connectivity options exist, empowering integrators to consider benefits and risks and then tailor solutions to clients’ needs and preferences. According to Richards, “The needed networks range from a small, isolated network/switch with a few connected devices to those that are fully connected to an enterprise network with various needs requiring access to the internet or other networks to get the full benefits of the hardware.” 

Considering ‘Convergence’ 

Nick Mitchell, CTS-D, vice president, sales support group, with Diversified, alludes to the well-worn “AV/IT convergence” phrase, saying, “We’ve all heard [it] for over a decade….” He explains that “…there are still many situations that our audiovisual systems remain on an isolated network with limited connectivity to the client LAN for internet access.” In many such cases, a small, separate network switch can lie at the heart of a discrete AV network. Mitchell identifies three factors that shape the extent to which AV systems interconnect with a client’s IT backbone: 1) the client’s security requirements; 2) the client’s own IT capabilities, as well as those of its contracted providers; and 3) whether the client has arranged for remote monitoring and management of AV systems. 

Peterson expresses strong views on security-related considerations, saying that AV integrators routinely work with clients (e.g., the federal government, financial-services institutions, energy companies) for whom information security is paramount. Although integrators could certainly utilize a VLAN on a single switch for enhanced security, he observes that it’s even more secure to have a physically separate network that doesn’t touch the outside network whatsoever. Mitchell underlines how top-of-mind cybersecurity considerations are for clients, noting that “…the client expectations of an integrator’s level of engagement are drastically increasing. As a result, integrators need to adapt and prioritize cybersecurity as part of project planning and deployment.” Later in this piece, we’ll consider some best practices for AV systems on the enterprise network. 

Sean Wargo, senior director of market intelligence for AVIXA, identifies another factor for clients considering converged or isolated network topologies — namely, redundancy. He explains that, for some high-end clients who expect absolute reliability, the preferred approach can involve having three networks: one for business-application data; one for control; and one for content. Pointing to the ascendance of 4K and even 8K content, as well as the need for exceptional experiences across verticals, Wargo says, “The idea that you can just multi-purpose an existing network infrastructure to handle all of the robust needs that an AV-over-IP networked AV system would have…it’s not recommended.” 

Considering AV-over-IP 

So far, we’ve mostly focused on network-based systems in general. Now, let’s turn specifically to AV-over-IP (AVoIP), defined as when both audio and video signals travel over the network through a network switch. Our interviewees are virtually unanimous in acknowledging its increasing prevalence. Mechdyne’s Peterson remarks, “I think AV-over-IP is going to be the solution for 90% of AV solutions going forward, at least.” AVI-SPL’s Richards centers the value proposition on flexibility, saying that AVoIP elevates it to a level “…that does not exist with purpose-built transmitters, receivers and the supporting card frames.” Moreover, he expresses a belief in the industry’s desire for the simplicity and enhanced functionality that, he believes, AVoIP can unlock, pointing to the ease of software updates and even hardware virtualization. 

AVI-SPL PQAVIXA’s Wargo observes that, fundamentally, integrators have always been responsible for routing content around spaces; indeed, he cites an application as simple as routing audio content using analog speaker wire. “What we’ve learned,” Wargo begins, “is that, now, that can be more efficiently handled and fairly accurately handled.” The process centers on compressing digital content, optimizing it for transmission and routing it over networks. With integrators and their clients leveraging today’s superior compression algorithms, they’re realizing tremendous efficiency gains as applications enlarge in scale. 

In my interviews with subject-matter experts, they consistently emphasize scale as a key motivator for employing AVoIP. Eric Snider, CTS-D, chief technology officer with Conference Technologies Inc. (CTI), declares, “In AV routing, anytime you are over a 4×4 configuration, you should consider AVoIP.” Mechdyne’s Peterson ballparks the threshold at any system with more than 16 endpoints, where a 16×16 matrix switcher would be needed. He expresses the view that, in such a situation, opting for AVoIP is “a no-brainer,” remarking, “An AV-over-IP system just makes so much more sense” than going up to 16×16, 32×32, 64×64 (and larger) matrix switchers, which can be cost-prohibitive. And even setting aside expense, Solutionz Inc.’s chief technology officer, Jay Armand, notes that availability could be an issue, saying larger 128×128 and 64×64 switcher chassis and blades are being discontinued by some manufacturers, thus essentially forcing the migration to AVoIP solutions. 

Seizing Opportunity, Reaping Rewards 

AVIXA’s Wargo shares some eye-popping figures that reflect just how sizeable the AVoIP phenomenon has become. “As you start to parse down the technologies, it’s really easy to get toward that 50% to 60% of revenue is somehow impacted by, or reliant on, or part of this phenomenon of AV-over-IP,” he notes. In fact, he says, AVIXA research indicates that spending on these kinds of solutions has hit between $130 billion and $140 billion. Further underscoring the point, Wargo, who identifies conference and collaboration as the top solution area, declares, “[A solution like] that doesn’t happen without some significant amount of network AV-over-IP kind of functionality.” The value proposition is equally clear in other dominant solution areas, such as content production and streaming; meanwhile, digital signage, of course, requires a reliable method of feeding dynamic content. 

With AVoIP now increasingly prevalent across many applications, it’s natural to wonder whether particular verticals stand to benefit most. “I feel AVoIP solutions are viable for nearly any vertical market,” Diversified’s Mitchell declares from the outset. “But,” he explains, “the most purchase would be enterprise environments — specifically, those with large conference and multi-purpose spaces that feature multiple content-ingest points and display locations.” AVI-SPL’s Richards amplifies AVoIP’s utility for large corporate enterprise clients, while also noting that higher-ed spaces have had robust adoption of AVoIP solutions. “Within these verticals,” he explains, “large-scale IPTV and digital signage deployments have been very successful.” 

Kramer Networking

Mechdyne’s Peterson pinpointed higher education not only as particularly ripe for AVoIP but also as a leading candidate for AV systems to be welcomed onto the client’s primary network. He mentioned a couple of specific institutions — namely, the University of Southern California and Iowa State — where HETMA members Joe Way and Mike Pedersen, respectively, are heavily leaning into AVoIP on their campuses. “The beauty of AV-over-IP is I can send any video source anywhere,” Peterson describes, “and, as long as it’s on their network, they can manage it that way.” The pandemic has only accelerated the trend, as the capacity to serve both remote participants and those in overflow rooms has become table stakes. 

Beyond the Low-Hanging Fruit 

Although enterprise and higher-ed clients are the low-hanging fruit, AVoIP holds potential in a range of other key verticals. Wargo points to the dazzling Illuminarium in Las Vegas as a prime example of an emerging opportunity in venues where experience quality is paramount. “What’s really pushing it is the content demands have become so high,” he observes, adding that an AVoIP backbone enhances and augments experiences that require porting a vast amount of content. Mechdyne’s Peterson, meanwhile, points to bars and other hospitality venues, which routinely must route TV signals around their premises. With AVoIP, he says, bars can leave all their cable boxes in a rack, set each one to a particular channel and simply route those to the dozens of displays distributed throughout their space. Wargo also points to transportation clients, whose large-scale operations depend on a highly efficient network backbone to get tasks done. 

Vanco on Where Networking and AV Meet 

AV-over-IP has been gaining traction across the industry, and, if you’re not sure why, here are a few reasons you should consider AVoIP for your next project.

Using standard IT networking equipment to transmit and switch audiovisual signals provides a host of benefits, including the ability to easily scale the system and monitor devices. You can expand any system by simply adding additional encoders, decoders or switches as needed. As long as bandwidth and the network are managed appropriately, even distance limitations are squashed since the content can often go wherever the network does.

Legacy gear can also benefit from a robust structured cable plant, using devices that convert and extend the AV signal over Cat cable or fiber. AVoIP can also help companies reduce truck rolls, with the ability to remotely monitor and troubleshoot any issues that crop up.

With this expanded functionality, the perception is often that AVoIP systems are cost-prohibitive — but that is simply not the case. The reality is, once a system is big enough to require an 8×16 matrix, you can deploy an AVoIP solution at a similar cost. And, with some savvy futureproofing measures, you can make sure the system is ready to expand at a moment’s notice.

Maybe the project does not call for 10 Gig switches at installation — but integrators should pull cable planning for this eventuality. Getting that infrastructure in place is the first step toward a fully networked system, and both your company and your clients will reap the rewards. 

It’s worth mentioning, however, that not every application or use case lends itself to an AVoIP-centric approach. Acknowledging the content-driven bandwidth demands that AV systems often entail, CTI’s Snider remarks, “You really need to show a business case to burrow huge amounts of bandwidth and [integrate] specially designed network equipment…with a network that originally was not designed to handle 1Gb per port.” Articulating integrators’ ideal role as a client’s strategic advisor, Peterson says that, if AVoIP continues to ascend, as he believes it will, “It is going to take an expert designer to know when not to use it.” For those taking notes at home, we’ll present two examples that he shares. 

First, Peterson says, AVoIP is rarely a desirable choice when an application involves an LCD tile display or large-format LED display with multiple controllers — in short, for any large videowall that requires multiple, synced sources. He explains, “If you need multiple, synced inputs into that system to generate the overall image, I wouldn’t use AV-over-IP because you couldn’t guarantee a synced input of multiple signals into those controllers.” Thus, Peterson continues, integrators could not be certain that the signals would be genlocked, which, in effect, means a viewer looking at a vertical “seam” between the two signals might perceive a little bit of “tearing.” Depending on whether the videowall showcases fast-motion video, the “tearing” might significantly diminish image quality. 

Peterson also sounded a note of caution on AVoIP’s utility with respect to federal government clients. The key virtue of AVoIP, he observes, is fostering the ability to route content easily between all points on the network; that virtue can become a vice, however, if information must be held in the strictest confidence. “When you have secret [or] top secret files and video signals, you do not want to route them to a destination that is not designed to hold those classifications,” Peterson declares. Continuing, he says federal government clients’ fear of the damage resulting from any such misrouting has inhibited AVoIP’s widespread adoption in that vertical. 

Enterprise Network Best Practices 

Already, we’ve discussed some methods by which integrators can mitigate cybersecurity risks stemming from AV systems being on the network — namely, deploying separate, isolated AV networks and/or utilizing VLANs. But recognizing that many clients want to benefit from the centralized routing and management that converged networks enable, it’s worth highlighting some cybersecurity best practices. Articulating integrators’ value proposition as strategic advisors, CTI’s Snider says, “How to deploy enterprise equipment that has network technology is the value integrators bring to the table.” Mike Abernathy of NSCA, a trade association that propounds the notion of integrators as knowledgeable partners, rather than mere product installers, amplifies that point. The association’s director of business resources says, “It is paramount [that] integrators know how their solutions will affect the client’s network and ensure the solutions are secure.” 

NETGEAR PQ

Admittedly, none of what follows will necessarily render a network truly impenetrable — indeed, as Solutionz’ Armand laments, “The risk is real, and where there is a will, there will be a way” — but these best practices represent a starting point. What’s more, they raise our collective consciousness about issues integrators must consider. 

AVI-SPL’s Richards points out some foundational steps — for example, disabling any unused ports or services, as well as using strong passwords on hardware — but makes clear that we cannot stop there. “Physical access to these networks, along with user-level access, should all be discussed to build a complete set of network-security requirements,” he opines. “With the rise of external cloud services for management and monitoring, conversations on security extend to these platforms to make sure both internal and external threats are considered.” Diversified’s Mitchell picks up the thread, saying that integrators must embrace, and have the requisite capabilities for, conducting vulnerability testing, meeting client security standards, and creating device-level and platform-level hardening documentation. 

AVIXA’s Wargo observes that the current risk threat and available protection options are increasingly part of industry training modules. This is an auspicious sign, indicating that integrators have resources to level-up their capabilities. However, the impetus to prioritize cybersecurity must also extend to integrators’ vendor partners. As Wargo notes, it’s imperative for manufacturers to “…[make] sure those devices are deploying protocols that would allow the content and the device to remain secure.” In particular, he encourages thoughtful consideration of how to implement an Ethernet port and how to avoid backdoor entry via that component. In that way, we must grapple with not only network security broadly but also single-device security. 

Too Many ‘Standards’? 

From SDVoE, to Dante AV, to HDBaseT and beyond, there are almost as many approaches and “standards” as there are AV products equipped with Ethernet ports. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Our group of experts presented both views. AVIXA’s Wargo mentioned that diverse approaches can be beneficial insofar as they allow integrators to recognize that not every alternative suits every application equally well; thus, integrators can identify the best option for a given use case and bring it to the table. “That diversity allows for more creative applications,” he explains. “The narrower the set of options, the fewer iterations and combinations there are.” 

But Diversified’s Mitchell identifies a potential challenge, saying, “With so many ‘standards,’ the AVoIP solutions start veering away from interoperability and back towards one vendor that provides a complete, and potentially proprietary, solution.” In light of current supply-chain snarls, any kind of vendor dependency can be a recipe for sclerotic business operations. As Mechdyne’s Peterson says, “If you pick one of these proprietary standards that only a single manufacturer makes, you’re at the mercy of their supply chain. If their supply chain can’t create the components you need to expand [that] system, you’re out of luck.” And, Mitchell adds, if an integrator aspires to be capable of deploying many “standards,” it involves a substantial investment. “Supporting each of these standards requires that the deployment team is properly trained and supported to ensure a successful project outcome,” he explains. “This can be a challenge, especially with all the options available….” 

Solutionz’ Armand acknowledges the difficulty of “…[becoming] experts simultaneously in all those competing technologies.” He continues, “Early on, we identified the lack of in-house expertise in networking and hired a network engineer — someone who knows Cisco CLI commands by heart. They have been a project lifesaver.” Things may soon become simpler, though, if Mechdyne’s Peterson reads the situation accurately. “The fact that every manufacturer has their own flavor…,” he begins, pausing before finishing his thought. “I think we’re going to start to see a lot of consolidation, and hopefully that starts to go away in the next few years.” In particular, he believes open standards and software-defined approaches will be ascendant, winning out over approaches that require a physical chip. 

Leveraging the Network to Sell Services 

One of the best and most exciting things about networked AV systems is the opportunity they present for integrators looking to pivot their business and boost profitability. NSCA’s Abernathy puts it well, saying, “Network-based systems provide the opportunity for integrators to monitor a client’s system and provide preventative and proactive services.” He adds that integrators can utilize newly developed platforms to deliver that value. “This generates recurring revenue for the integrator,” Abernathy enthuses, “[and it] leads to data from these services.” When integrators leverage that data, they can better serve clients by suggesting ways to optimize workflows and yield greater efficiencies. 

“Having everything on the network as much as possible provides tons of monitoring options,” Peterson agrees. It’s no wonder, then, that AVIXA’s Wargo confirms solid growth forecasts in this area — with upward revisions very possible. “There’s just a lot of potential there that I think we’re just starting to see the possibilities for,” the market intelligence specialist declares. Wargo mentions that some integrators may even widen their aperture beyond monitoring and maintenance and embrace emerging opportunities like content as a service. 

Monitoring, management and maintenance aren’t just means to boost integrators’ business, though. Equally, if not more, importantly, they are a way to enhance client outcomes and meet today’s elevated expectations. AVI-SPL’s Richards makes the case, noting that network connectivity allows for another monitoring point in the signal chain and offers the visibility necessary to ensure sources and destinations are healthy. “If part of the client’s strategy for service is to centralize or automate how escalations/ticketing occur, this can often align with standard IT process and simplify how a resolution is achieved,” he explains. “Ultimately, standard IT management processes can lead to proactive resolutions when there is a failure versus [being] reactive.” Richards adds that, if a total hardware failure occurs, integrator partners benefit from having better visibility of the issue prior to going onsite. 

And, Diversified’s Mitchell adds, all this visibility can consolidate on that ever-elusive “single pane of glass.” As he explains it, “The benefit of a robust managed service offering is the consolidation of all the disparate vendor-management tools and web interfaces into one central monitoring and management platform that enables the client and/or integrator to better understand usage [and] potential needs, [as well as to] resolve issues, manage updates and more.” 

TD SYNNEX on Ushering in Service-Based Integration 

As the lines between AV and IT continue to blur, TD SYNNEX sees an opportunity to usher in a new era of service-based integration that can offer higher margins. Being able to bundle network connectivity, cybersecurity and physical security makes for a highly specialized integrator. While most devices are now on the network, it’s becoming clearer how to separate the types of devices by purpose. Our portfolio of Wireless connectivity vendors has simplified separating security-critical devices like laptops, phones and cameras to more secured Wi-Fi networks, while keeping convenience-oriented IoT devices separate. 

It’s important to ensure that these systems are co-operative. If your system is going to live on a network managed by others, then you’ll need to play by their rules while also communicating what’s needed for the system to work properly. Many large systems are opting to merge AV and IP to narrow the scope of security tools needed to maintain the environment. For smaller systems, it’s best to reduce complexity and work with a separate network. 

Whatever the approach, network security should be at the forefront. TD SYNNEX or a trusted IT professional can create a plan with zero network vulnerabilities. We also help clients navigate the variety of security protocols, selecting the right one for your application and maintaining standards with compliancy laws. We speak all the languages needed to be successful here — AV, networking and finance — and we can build out custom enablement programs tailored to suit the needs of any reseller go-to-market strategies. 

Conclusion 

Integrators have limitless opportunity, and a bit of a challenge, ahead of them. The rapid rise of network-centric AV systems unlocks heretofore-unattainable technical capabilities and vast profit potential, but it also means many integrators must push beyond established comfort zones. And make no mistake: The evolution is continuing unabated. 

“As IoT sensors and devices become more and more part of the solution, integrators will need to understand AI [and] machine learning…,” Abernathy advises. Moreover, they would be well served by bringing on software developers to help create solutions to meet client needs. 

Diversified’s Mitchell echoes this point, making clear that the complexities around networked AV are only increasing. “We are now navigating a new phase of AV/IT convergence with the move to software-based solutions and virtualization,” he opines. “This transition can be seen in modern collaboration endpoints, virtual control systems, digital audio processors and other devices.” Mitchell continues, “The associated skill sets to design, deploy, secure and support these systems go beyond networked AV or AVoIP engineering. Conversations are now being had around high availability [HA], server scalability, patching, security, device management and platform-based provisioning.” 

Even when integrators feel their core competencies don’t align with emerging opportunities, they shouldn’t necessarily cede those dollars to others. As Wargo says, “When you can’t build, you partner to acquire or to bring to the table. That will be a big part of this — finding sister organizations who are a little better on this other side than you might be.” That’s a recipe for gaining efficiency, skills and access to new markets. 

Click view slideshow in the upper right corner to review results of the survey. 

About the Author

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Dan Ferrisi has been covering the commercial AV industry as an editor, reporter and writer since 2004. He is the former editor of Sound & Communications, and he joined Commercial Integrator as editor-in-chief in November 2021.

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